Latin America Media Solutions for the Amazon
Across the nine countries of the South American Amazon, the news and journalism industries were historically dominated by radio, TV and print media. In recent years, however, the rise of cable and Internet video streaming have reduced audience sizes. Some media companies have responded by launching their own streaming services while others have begun to sensationalize their content to retain audiences and revenue.
In some countries, the Amazon forest, or the portrayal of it, has become a target of these sensationalist tendencies as well. Media outlets that serve specific political constituencies raise alarms, incite outrage, and increase viewership. The reporting itself was not problematic until editorial decisions were made to demonize those on one side of a given controversy. This departure by some journalists from impartial analyst to partisan opinion-maker, helped to spoil public debate, catalyze us-versus-them culture, and start new cycles of conflict. There were antagonists on all sides. Soon all Amazon cattle ranchers were accused of illegal deforestation, all environmentalists were labeled as reckless economic obstructionists, and all conservation-minded foreigners were pegged as threats to national sovereignty.
One primary outcome of this polarization process has been political paralysis. Even though proof of illegal deforestation exists, the Brazilian congress has been slow to act. Despite the design of good regional economic development strategies, good faith leaders have struggled to overcome bureaucracies or enforce laws.
In light of these obstacles, there are several key opportunities for the South American media to help move the Amazon development controversy forward.
Evidence Based Policymaking
Though of questionable entertainment value, there is a big opportunity to shift public discourse on the Amazon away from a clash of values and towards an evidence-based process of data collection and evaluation. While media spin and partisanship would lose traction in the process, the political center would develop consensus and endorse a vision for Amazon development that balances economic priorities with conservation needs. Stakeholders from all sides want to know which policies effectively advance forest-friendly prosperity. Is it more profitable to clear forests and raise new cattle or to intensify production on existing land? Is it more profitable to grow and sell soybeans or agroforestry polycultures of açaí and rubber? Is deforestation driven more by people fighting their way out of poverty or by criminal groups eager to profit from the sale of new land titles secured in partnership with corrupt politicians? Does the stigma of Amazon farmers against environmental sustainability come from experiences of economic failure or from cultural distrust? Is there historic data available to answer these questions, or is new research required to find solutions? Investigating these questions and reviewing evidence, will produce good results.
When issues are presented by the media in dispassionate, even-handed ways that represent the experiences of all sides, the general public appreciates and rewards evidence-based approaches to politics and policymaking. Several groups in Brazil embark on such journeys and need greater support from the media. The Concertação pela Amazonia, for example, has united over 100 Brazilian leaders from diverse sectors to consider 15 specific areas of Amazon development in order to collaboratively design new, sustainable economic plans for the region. In the model of a think tank, Instituto Escolhas conducts research and synthesizes policy analysis, opinion polls, market data, and more to help shape Amazon policy debates. Operating mostly in the South of Brazil (outside the Amazon), Dialogo Forestal convenes local groups of organizations, companies, environmentalists and residents to engage in consensus building processes and shape agreements on forest use and management.
While these efforts have not yet eliminated illegal deforestation, the media could scale their impact by promoting them as solutions and reporting their outcomes in an ongoing manner to acclimate the Brazilian citizenry to a new development vision for the Amazon region.
Positive Role Models
Independent of policy debates, change is also needed at the cultural level in the Amazon. A 2017 study from the Brazilian state of Pará, revealed that tradition and neighborly cohesion were more significant drivers of land use decision-making than economics. Those people who advocate for more sustainable farming practices are often sidelined or ignored all together. The sustainable cattle rancher, Mauro Lucio Costa, faced these obstacles head on. After observing the deleterious effects of climate change on his cows and his profits, he worked to intensify production and yield more on less land, thereby reducing the need to cut new forests. After some success, he decided to only work with deforestation-free suppliers, but came up short and struggled to break even financially as a result. To counteract ostracization from some and find enough business from others, Mauro needs the help of outsiders. Perhaps from the media.
Research on social and cultural dynamics demonstrate that when people are able to identify positive role models they are more successful and have higher self esteem. Open minded Amazon farmers, especially younger generations, need positive role models like Mauro as inspiration to learn about and adopt new and emergent sustainable agriculture strategies. TV programs that promote sustainability, encourage leadership, and reward green farmers will evangelize climate-smart development and help shift cultural norms.
There are numerous historic examples of how past TV programs have catalyzed positive shifts in culture. In the United States, the Cosby show helped the American public improve its perception and expectations of African American professionals and families by mainstreaming their presence in society. Similarly, the sitcom Will & Grace helped to destigmatize the lifestyles of gay and lesbian couples. New TV programs dedicated to telling the stories of Amazonian sustainability pioneers like Mauro could shift perceptions and help all South American countries where eco-entrepreneurs face cultural obstacles today.
Agroforestry has attracted global attention as a strategy to increase yields while sequestering carbon. While there is a multi-billion dollar opportunity to convert Amazon cattle pasture into forest gardens, access to farming knowledge and technical assistance has become a bottleneck limiting the growth of the industry. The universe of TV programming and video streaming may offer a solution. In Kenya, Shamba Shape Up, the #1 daytime television show with an estimated 9 million weekly viewers, features farm makeovers and is coming into its 10th season. An independent study showed that viewers become better farmers, diversify their income streams, and enjoy better nutrition. Another show, Don’t Lose the Plot, features a youth farming competition to see who can make the most profit from one acre of land. Mediae, the parent company of both programs, also hosts a virtual farmer-support platform that helps with crop selection and more. Traditional farm training programs, by comparison, have had limited impact due to illiteracy, teaching methodologies and other hurdles. Drawing from these African experiences, media companies and broadcasters of the Amazon could develop similar programs today to produce and spread agroforestry technical knowledge at scale across the region.
If the media has drawn the ire of critics for dividing us in years past, there will be a hunger to unite us again in years to come. Regardless of what corner of the Amazon is in need, the media has a key role to play in building bridges and promoting sustainability. The future of Amazon forest integrity and global climate stability may depend on it.