Dying for Land

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Days after a reporting project by UBC journalism students ran in The New York Times, Brazilian authorities began arresting suspects in the murder of indigenous leader Nisio Gomes.

“This is the kind of impact journalists dream about,” says Peter W. Klein, director of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism and co-instructor of the global reporting class.

Over the eight-month project, the students uncovered a series of murders of Guarani Indians in the southern Brazilian state Mato Grosso do Sul, a part of the country that is the traditional homeland of the Guarani people.

As a result of a 1988 constitutional revision, indigenous people have the right to return to their ancestral land, much of which is now productive farmland. “Several groups of Guarani have returned to areas they claim are their ancestral soil,” says Klein. “What they’ve found are Brazilians farming the land, some for decades, and the clashes have resulted in a lot of bloodshed.”

UBC student Calyn Shaw in Brazil

Klein said the story had been largely ignored by mainstream media, but after student Calyn Shaw heard about the most recent murder last November, he brought the idea to the attention of the class and the New York Times. Three months later, the students were in southern Brazil, tracking down the family of the murdered Guarani chief Nisio Gomes. Gomes’ son and nephew appear in the video explaining the execution-style attack.

Since the resulting video (above) ran on the New York Times website in June, and an accompanying story co-reported by the students was published in a Sunday edition of The New York Times newspaper, 18 people have reportedly been arrested in connection with the Gomes murder, including the head of a major security firm that protects farmland from Guarani land reclamation efforts.

Genito Gomes, son of Nisio Gomes, and Guarani elder

Klein said there were many indications the Brazilian government did not want this story told, most notably their apprehension by federal police after a meeting with FUNAI, the Brazilian government agency that oversees indigenous affairs.

“The students and I were never in danger, but the experience underscored for all of us that we were clearly touching a nerve,” says Klein.

A group of program graduates are still following the story and are building a website dedicated to the issue of land disputes in Brazil.  “These arrests are a good first step, but hopefully we inspire other news media and Brazil’s government to watch the process closely, to ensure that convictions occur and justice prevails,” says Shaw.

This isn’t the first time UBC’s International Reporting Program has attracted attention for the quality and importance of the work it produces. Established with the support of a $1M donation from Alison Lawton’s Mindset Social Innovation Foundation, the program’s inaugural student project, tracing the path of electronic waste to Ghana, China and India, won an Emmy. Learn more.

The intention of the funder and the School of Journalism “is to grow the program into a larger centre that can take on multiple projects, partner with the top global reporters in the industry and experiment with new forms of international reporting.” Learn more (PDF).

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