Investigating the Deadly Battle for Land in Brazil
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 More Detail
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.
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.
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.
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.
The effect of ‘Dying for Land’
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, CBC.ca, TheTyee.ca and the Vancouver Observer.