Deadly battle for land in Brazil

Investigating the Deadly Battle for Land in Brazil

The International Reporting Program is a yearlong course offered to students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. This is a first-person narrative from a student about their experience of covering a challenging subject abroad and what it brought to their life and career as a result of being in the IRP program.

A story by Calyn Shaw

Who killed Nisio Gomes and why? Those were the basic questions at the heart of the story. Getting that story though, that would be the difficult part.

I was sitting in the international reporting class at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism reading news reports from Brazil when I noticed the BBC headline: ‘Brazil indigenous Guarani leader Nisio Gomes killed’.

It was November 18, 2011 and we were more than two months into planning our reporting trip to the Amazon — all eight students in the International Reporting Program were to work on a story about the controversial Belo Monte Dam project; the Xikrin people are fighting to protect their ancestral land in the heart of the Amazon, as a massive hydropower dam threatened to dry out their river.

We were less than a month from leaving to cover the Belo Monte Dam story and Gomes’ murder was not even in the same region. In fact, it was an entirely different story on the other side of the country. Adding it to the project would be a huge change for the class. But how could we possibly ignore the apparent execution of a prominent elder from a beleaguered indigenous tribe?

Once we started digging, we knew it was a story we had to pursue. We quickly learned it was not just about the murder of one man; it was a much larger story with ramifications for the entire country. It was a story about complex legal issues, political failures and a violent struggle for valuable land in Brazil’s western frontier. Nisio Gomes was just one of a long list of Guarani tribal leaders who had been attacked.

Peter Klein, director of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism, agreed that we should pursue the story but suggested it wouldn’t require the involvement of the whole class. Five students would still head to the Amazon to work on the Belo Monte Dam story. Meanwhile, my classmates Aleksandra Sagan, Sam Eifling and I would head to southwestern Brazil.

We were supposed to be leaving for Brazil in less than a month and now three of us were changing the focus of our story. The theme was similar — the tension between economic development and the rights of indigenous tribes — but we were now looking at an entirely different state, with new people, new companies and entirely new challenges.

The main concern was the violent nature of the conflict. This wasn’t a story about protests and social action; it was a story about intimidation and violence, and often execution-style murders with no consequences for the killers. It was a story about a small group of indigenous people who wanted their land back, up against agricultural producers who make millions of dollars off that land and are willing to do almost anything to keep it.

We had our story. Now it was time to get to work.


From the Director

Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)

In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.

Our media partners have included The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.

We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”

From the Instructor

An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

Digging for detail

Digging for More Detail

Laranjeira Nhanderu, Rio Brilhante, about an hour north of the town of Dourados in Mato Grosso Do Sul. This was the first Guarani village we visited. Photo credit: Sam Eifling

For a group of relatively inexperienced journalists, getting down to work was more difficult than any of us wanted it to be.

We were facing all the logistical hurdles of reporting from somewhere no one in the group had ever been. Additionally, the story itself was daunting — all we had was the ‘big picture’ that still felt so obscure, complex and dense that we barely knew where to begin. And we didn’t have a lot of time.

We had to start from square one. We needed to thoroughly research the issue, develop local contacts, set up interviews, find and brief a translator, plan our travel, and secure our interviews.

Nisio Gomes was killed in Mato Grosso do Sul in southwestern Brazil. The state sits along the borders of Paraguay and Bolivia. It’s a tourist destination and also comprises of the vast majority of the Pantanal region — the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Agriculture represents more than 31 percent of the state’s GDP.

Of course, we didn’t know any of this when we decided to make the murder of Guarani leaders the focus of our story. In fact, we knew almost nothing about the state and had zero contacts to get us started.

This is where the journalism school and the experienced professors running the International Reporting Program made a huge difference.

This is where the journalism school and the experienced professors running the International Reporting Program made a huge difference. For instructors such as Peter, David Rummel and Dan McKinney, putting together stories set in foreign places with little planning time and countless hurdles are nothing new. They quickly focused us on the key task of finding someone to help us with local contacts.

Survival International (SI) recommended Nereu Schneider to help us get in touch with the Guarani. We had reached out to the NGO as part of our research. SI is a human rights organization advocating for tribal peoples around the world, including the Guarani in Brazil where the organization has published numerous reports on the plight of the Guarani. SI helped us wrap our heads around the scope and scale of the issues we were trying to investigate.

When SI introduced us to Nereu to help us for some of our time in Mato Grasso do Sul, we were thrilled. Nereu didn’t speak a lot of English but we would have a translator, Erica Tarnowski, so we weren’t that concerned.

We were more focused on the fact that Nereu could get us access to the Guarani tribes, including the camp where Nisio Gomes was allegedly gunned down and his body dragged off. Nereu is a trained lawyer and had worked with the Guarani in the past. It was a big win for us to find a local expert who could introduce us to the Guarani. It was crucial that they trusted him and he trusted us.

Our trip was delayed because of issues with our visa applications. This turned out to be a blessing as it gave us much needed time to get organized. We were able to secure interviews with a couple of agricultural producers as well as a federal prosecutor who had worked on numerous investigations into violence against the Guarani.

An interview with the Brazilian government’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) was still up in the air but we decided to leave some things to serendipity with the hope Nereu or another one of our contacts would be able to help us out once we got there.

Investigating Murder

Investigating Murder

Genito Gomes, son of Nisio, and a village elder at the Tekoha Guaiviry camp near Amambai.

It is hard to explain the rush of excitement that comes with foreign reporting. There is a thrill when you arrive with a purpose and a mission, in a place beset with chaos. Peter was delayed because of a family illness and was on a different flight a day behind us. His delay meant we were on our own, which for Aleksandra, Sam and me, added to the excitement. Three intrepid reporters, responsible for all our own gear, and making it safely to our first destination with no translator, no guide, just us alone in Brazil — it felt like the start of an incredible adventure.

We conducted two interviews before Peter arrived. Without his experience and guiding hand, of course we made mistakes. The audio was a little off, the lighting a little wrong, the colour balance askew. I imagine it’s exactly what you would expect from three inexperienced journalists in the field. We didn’t end up using either interview in the final version of the story. But we got a lot of good information and when Peter arrived, we hit our stride.

We left Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, and headed for the municipality of Dourados to interview people from a couple different Guarani tribes. Our interviews included members of Nisio Gomes’ tribe at the camp in Tekoha Guayviri in the municipality of Amambai where he was murdered. We spoke to his family members, including his son, and people who witnessed the attack.

These interviews became the backbone of the story. They are the opening scenes in the video we produced for The New York Times.

These interviews became the backbone of the story. They are the opening scenes in the video we produced for The New York Times. The interviews clearly set up the core of the entire piece: Here’s a man, a respected elder, a tribal leader, trying to lead his community back onto their ancestral lands, but that land is controlled by people willing to kill for it.

In the other Guarani communities we heard more stories of extreme violence and intimidation, stories of kidnappings and brutal beatings. We spoke to children who were worried their homes would be destroyed, or worse, their parents or grandparents would be executed in front of them.

As we left the Guarani, I think we all felt like we had accomplished a huge part of the story. The days were long and the language barriers made the interviews difficult, but we had spoken to the people and gathered the information that was absolutely essential to make the story work. Then we turned our attention to the ‘bad guys’ — the big ranchers and agricultural producers.

Peter Klein
Peter Klein setting up the shot for our interview with Genito Gomes at the Tekoha Guaiviry camp. Photo credit: Sam Eifling
Valmir Gomez
Genito Gomes showing us where Nisio Gomes was attacked. Photo credit: Aleksandra Sagan

Are they really the bad guys?

We covered a huge amount of territory to get to the subjects of our interview, often driving for hours across the large state. We had left our base in Dourados and were ‘town hopping’ a bit, based on which interviews we were actually able to pin down and how long they took.

We had a pickup truck that belonged to Nereu with all the gear piled in it, and a rental car that Peter drove. We had to rotate who went with Nereu and who went with Peter. Our translator Erica always rode with Nereu and she was a lot of fun, so it wasn’t so bad in the pickup. However, spending time in the car with Peter discussing his experiences overseas and foreign reporting felt to me like having a bonus master’s class. We even spent time talking about how to improve the International Reporting Program and the journalism school. Peter seemed to enjoy picking our brains about what worked and what we thought should change.

Driving across Mato Grosso do Sul, we got a firsthand look at the vast expanse of large-scale farming in the state — cattle ranches, soybean farms and sugarcane plantations stretching out, often as far as you could see. It gave us a good perspective of what was at stake. These were not small, insignificant operations the agricultural producers believed they were protecting.

One day our team had to split up. We had a lot of ground still to cover and our days in Brazil were numbered. Sam and I headed off to meet with Eduardo Riedel, president of FAMASUL, the farmers' association in Mato Grosso do Sul. He met us on his farm in Maracaju and explained the big picture from the farmers’ perspective.

We had planned to use Riedel as the voice of the agricultural producers in the story but we also wanted to speak with the owners of the farm where Nisio Gomes was killed. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t speak with us. Then Riedel suggested we speak with the Silva family who owned a cattle ranch in Amambai where there had been a number of violent incidents.

When we arrived at the Silva ranch the next day, we did not get the welcome we expected. The matriarch Roseli Silva almost threw us off her ranch immediately. We didn’t entirely understand what was happening and our translator was having trouble keeping up with Silva. She was flailing her arms, yelling at us, pointing at Nereu who had suddenly slunk back into the driver seat of the pickup.

It turned out Nereu was directly involved in some of the legal battles against ranchers in the state and not just any ranchers, but specific ranchers. The Silvas regarded Nereu as an agitator and when we arrived with him, they doubted our neutrality. It almost derailed the entire interview.

We managed to convince Roseli and her family that it was an honest mistake and that they should still do the interview, which was a good thing because once they started talking, not only did we have a strong voice to defend the ranchers’ position, we had an interview with a family of ranchers who condoned the violence being used against the Guarani, even though the Guarani were ‘squatting’ on their ranch.

And then Roseli Silva looked straight into the camera and admitted that a member of the ranch’s security team had shot a man from the Guarani community who had been trespassing on their land.

And then Roseli Silva looked straight into the camera and admitted that a member of the ranch’s security team had shot a man from the Guarani community who had been trespassing on their land.

The Silvas rationalized the shooting, saying the security team was defending itself against violent attacks from a savage tribe hoping to kill them all. They showed us pictures of butchered cattle and of the injuries sustained by Roseli’s husband after an altercation with the Guarani who believed the Silva spread lay on their ancestral land. The Silvas made a strong case for why they believed the land was theirs. The family had been on the land for almost 100 years. They had cultivated it, made it productive and deserved to keep it.

This was the issue at the very heart of our story, the growing tension in Mato Grosso do Sul between agricultural producers who generate billions of dollars for the Brazilian economy and indigenous peoples trying to reclaim their land — territory that Brazil’s constitution promises to return to the indigenous tribes. The extreme violence and intimidation were, and continue to be, a product of this seemingly intractable conflict over what is tremendously valuable land. Although the violence is inexcusable, it is easy to understand why both sides think they deserve the rich, lush land of Mato Grosso do Sul.

It was critical to the story that we had gotten the ranchers to admit their security forces had killed a man. This, in addition to the powerful interviews with the Guarani people, formed the backbone of the piece. As well, our interview with the federal prosecutor helped us understand some of the legal issues around these land conflicts.

Now we needed the accountability interview with the agency in charge of indigenous affairs — FUNAI — to explain what they were doing to try to fix this problem.

Police station

Becoming the story

We were always told in journalism school not to ‘become the story’ but when we tried to get FUNAI to talk to us, that is exactly what happened.

It was the last day of our reporting and for weeks, FUNAI had avoided and delayed our request for an interview. We finally just showed up at its local office to try and pressure someone to speak to us face-to-face. A handful of employees invited us in and walked us up to a meeting room on the second floor. We sat down and expected to be the ones asking all the questions, but quickly found ourselves on the receiving end of a barrage of questions: Where did you go? Who did you speak to? What did they say?

Then the federal police suddenly entered the room. The situation had very quickly and unexpectedly turned on us. Before we could really say anything, we were being escorted down to the police station under the guise we had violated the terms of our visas.

Then the federal police suddenly entered the room. The situation had very quickly and unexpectedly turned on us. Before we could really say anything, we were being escorted down to the police station under the guise we had violated the terms of our visas.

The police held us for eight hours. They questioned us about everywhere we had been and everyone with whom we had spoken. They threatened to take all our video footage, arrest and deport us.

The whole time Peter was calm as could be. For every hostile question, he countered with an officially sanctioned reassurance. Of course, we had all the correct paperwork. Of course, we had gone through the correct channels.

It was the last day and the police held us just long enough to prevent us from doing any more interviews. It was all about intimidating us and blocking our access because, it seemed, FUNAI didn’t want to speak to us.

The bigger problem was that the media coverage in the local press threatened to sabotage our entire piece. Likely he was trying to help, but Nereu had reached out to some of his Guarani contacts and a number of activists arrived to show their support. They also brought along the press. They wanted to draw attention to what was happening to us but for foreign journalists, hoping to slip under the radar on a story like this, this attention was not good.

We were partnering with The New York Times and when our difficulties with the police showed up in the local papers the next day, the attention threatened the entire project. If others caught wind of our story and scooped The Times, why would that major media outlet want it anymore?

Alternatively, if we had indeed been violating our visas that would have detracted from or destroyed any credibility we had to report the story.

In the end, the local media coverage was minimal and contained. Our 10-minute documentary, along with a full-length feature story written by The New York Times Brazil bureau chief Simon Romero, was published by The Times and sent out into the world.

Emtpy Land Brazil

The effect of ‘Dying for Land’

Shortly after our story was posted on The New York Times website, Brazilian authorities arrested 18 people in connection with the killing of Nisio Gomes. While we have no conclusive evidence our story led directly to these arrests, several sources in Brazil told us the international attention to this largely ignored story was instrumental in pressuring the authorities to try to bring justice for Gomes’ murder.

The list of suspects included the owner of a notorious security firm that hires gunmen to patrol land occupied by ranchers. Brazil’s federal police also linked other prominent suspects to Gomes’ murder, including six ranchers, a lawyer and a civil servant. The charges brought against those arrested included planning the attack, supplying arms, corrupting witnesses and fraud.

Months later, Brazil’s public prosecutors called for the closure of a notorious security firm accused of carrying out at least eight brutal attacks on Guarani communities and the killing of at least two of their leaders.

Without the UBC International Reporting Program, none of this reporting would have been possible.

I think all of us would have liked to write the print piece for The New York Times as well, but Romero did a solid job following our reporting in Mato Grosso do Sul and wrote a strong comprehensive piece for the prestigious newspaper.

It was his words and our video that drew an incredible amount of attention to the plight of the Guarani in Brazil. To this day it remains the piece of journalism of which I am most proud.

Calyn Shaw

About the Author

Calyn Shaw is a senior writer at CBC News Network. He holds a master of journalism from UBC, where he specialized in environmental and energy policy reporting. He was also a TerreWEB scholar focusing extensively on issues related hydraulic fracturing and natural gas development in British Columbia.

Calyn earned an MA in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick. He was formerly a research fellow at UBC’s Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing, where he worked on the centre's Climate Intelligence Program.

His work has appeared in The New York Times, CBC, ESPN the Magazine, The Globe and Mail,, and the Vancouver Observer.

Story Credits

Author: Calyn Shaw, alumnus of the UBC School of Journalism

Guest author: Peter Klein, Director and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism

Masthead photo credit: Sam Eifling

Thank you: To Sam Eifling, Aleksandra Sagan for all their hard work on the ‘Dying for Land’ project and the great photos they contributed to this piece. Credit goes to David Rummel for helping to bring The New York Times in on this story, which made the entire piece possible. Thanks also to Alison Lawton for funding the International Reporting Program. And finally, the biggest thank you of all to Peter Klein for all his hard work in Brazil to help wrangle three inexperienced reporters and getting us home safe with a great story.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator, Digital Information Channels; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer. Additional research and copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor and Researcher.

Published: April 2015