An indigenous journalist brings a new perspective to news reporting about the Brazilian Amazon
By Mélissa Godin
Elaíze Farias’ phone is buzzing. Sitting at a restaurant in central Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil, just weeks before the presidential election, Farias is in demand. She is fielding requests from domestic and international organisations to comment, give lectures and speak on panels about her work as a journalist in the Amazon.
Amid the election buzz, Farias is committed to ensuring her less high-profile stories do not get forgotten. “We want to tell the stories of people who are excluded from mainstream media,” she says.
Farias is the editor of Amazônia Real, a digital media outlet dedicated to telling stories about the violation of Indigenous, environmental and human rights in the Brazilian Amazon, that she cofounded 10 years ago with journalists Kátia Brasil and Liege Albuquerque.
Farias, frustrated by the way traditional journalism perpetuates colonialist mentalities, created Amazônia Real with the goal of doing journalism differently. However, the platform is about more than seeking to tell untold stories about injustice: it is a laboratory for thinking about what a new, post-colonial journalism could look like.
“We keep the basic principles of journalism, like listening to different sides and following a certain code of ethics,” she says about Amazônia Real’s newsroom. “But I see a need to rethink some basic media concepts.”
From an early age, at home in Parintins, a municipality on the banks of the Amazon, Farias was interested in social issues. Of Indigenous origin, she was always passionate about telling stories, often listening to those passed down from her grandparents. But journalism was not her goal.
“Journalism was a way of getting a university degree,” Farias says, noting how challenging it is for a woman from a state school to be admitted to the Federal University of Amazonas. “There was nothing romantic about my choosing journalism.”
While studying, Farias worked as a culture reporter, covering everything from music to art. She fell in love with the craft and by 2003, changed her focus towards social injustice. She increasingly spent time on the streets of Manaus, writing stories about people who struggled to access clean water or electricity. “I learned a lot about myself – and found myself – during this period,” she says.
The more stories about the environment and Indigenous rights Farias worked on, the more concerned she became about the way they were reported. “I became worried that journalism stigmatises Indigenous people,” she says.
Farias cringed reading stories that featured what she calls a “panoramic view” of the Amazon, where the region’s diverse cultural groups were collapsed into a monolith. She felt communities were often either left out of the conversation or fetishised. “Outsiders like to make the Amazon exotic, like a theatre,” she says. “They want to wow people. They want something they can sell.”
So, in 2013, Farias, with Brasil and Albuquerque, established Amazônia Real, dedicated to underreported stories about the Amazon. With no initial financial help, it was essential to Farias and Brasil that they make no compromises by hosting sponsored content on the site or accepting money. “We don’t want people to think that we have an allegiance to anyone who isn’t the public,” Farias says.
But what sets Amazônia Real apart is not just the stories it tells, but how it tells them.
This starts with breaking what Farias calls the “myth of neutrality” in journalism. She doesn’t believe objectivity is possible, given that all journalists have worldviews that inevitably shape how they tell stories. Meaning, she says, western ways of understanding the world are assumed to be “neutral” but centre on economic logic – often missing the mark when it comes to the Amazon.
Through a western lens, for example, the merits of an extractive project can be judged on potential profitability; even people’s wellbeing may be judged by the money in their bank account, and an environmental footprint calculated in carbon emitted rather than species lost. But Farias says many in the Amazon “don’t have the same view”. “If you come in with this bias in your mind, you might see someone fishing for food and say they are poor, when they see themselves as rich,” she says, which inevitably affects story accuracy.
Farias refuses to be called an activist – a term she says stigmatises journalists – but does believe it shouldn’t be radical for journalists to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed by the status quo. Amazônia Real explicitly states on its website that it seeks to defend Indigenous people, a stance many news organisations would refuse to take. “If you’re being neutral,” Farias says, “you’re on the side of the oppressor,” citing South African bishop Desmond Tutu.
Amazônia Real is now established as a leading media player in the region, respected by readers and competitors, who often republish its stories. And Farias has won several awards for her journalism.
Journalists for the platform are encouraged to work to the schedule of the communities they interview, rather than imposing their own deadlines. Unlike other media outlets, reporters nurture close ties with those they write about and maintain contact after a story is published. For Farias, this is crucial to build trust and solidarity. She says keeping distance from a subject is unrealistic and can be unkind when people have trusted you with their story and put their lives on the line to tell it.
“It’s not about creating a manual,” Farias says. “It’s about putting a different perspective forward. It’s about putting the voices of marginalised people first.”
Credit: The Guardian