Slow Journalism, Community Storytelling, and Out of Eden Learn’s curriculum: the experience of an aspiring journalist

Andres Camacho is an amateur journalist, currently in the midst of his first project about the mine spill in Brazil’s Doce River valley. Andres graduated in 2015 from University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus in Entrepreneurship and Digital Communication.

Paul Salopek inspired me to become a journalist. He’s the first  person I could point to and say “That’s exactly the kind of work I want to do”. His advocacy for slow, shoe leather journalism inspired me. So, I’ve embarked on a journey of my own, following the banks of Brazil’s Doce River, learning the craft of journalism step by step. (I’ve walked and ridden a bike and my thumb on this journey upriver because, unlike Paul, I don’t have a camel or a donkey to help me carry enough water). I’ve been experimenting with Out of Eden Learn’s freely available curriculum materials as a journalistic tool, specifically the  community mapping activity, and I would like to demonstrate how it’s impacted my approach.

A map of Regencia, created by the elementary school students before the mine spill.

A map of Regencia, created by the elementary school students before the mine spill.

To begin, some context on the current situation in the Doce River valley and why I’m here.

On November 5th, 2015, the Fundão dam collapsed in Mariana, Brazil. This unleashed a violent torrent of mine waste that previously sat quarantined in what is called a Tailings Storage Facility. Sixty-two million cubic meters of muddy sludge roared downstream; it leveled the town of Bento Rodriguez and killed 19 people, and it washed away riparian forests as if they were matchsticks. The orange plume of mud— rich with heavy metals – advanced down the Doce River, killing fish in the tons, and causing water shortages and panic in cities along the river. Media outlets from around the world parachuted into this historic mining region to document the muddy martian wasteland of Bento Rodriguez, the long lines for clean water in various cities, the dead fish blanketing the water’s surface, and the rust colored waves crashing on the once pristine beaches of Regencia, when the mine waste reached the Atlantic ocean after nearly three weeks.

Wellington guides his boat through a narrow channel of the contaminated Doce River near the community of Regencia. Listen to his story and the challenges facing those who rely on traditional livelihoods.

Wellington guides his boat through a narrow channel of the contaminated Doce River near the community of Regencia. Listen to his story and the challenges facing those who rely on traditional livelihoods.

I wondered how Paul’s approach of “slow journalism” would influence the coverage of a natural disaster. Just as a river is more than the water that bubbles at its source— it is the result of contributions from tributaries big and small— so too, is it with an environmental disaster. Events like this do not happen in a vacuum. By moving slowly I am trying to discover the various winding thematic tributaries that contributed to this event, and that will shape the aftermath for years to come.

I realized pretty quickly that even “slow” does not feel slow enough. So much remains unknown, unseen (I wonder if Paul feels this way). A landscape is bathed in histories, relationships, and controversies that are usually only visible to residents. Engaging with students by adapting Out of Eden Learn’s community mapping activity has taught me how to see what is around me.

These first drawings are from Regencia, a community at the mouth of the Doce River.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 11.25.33 AM

“A lama da Samarco não nos calará: Regência viva.”
“The mud of Samarco will not silence us: Regencia lives.”
by Mattheus Santos, 8th grade

(Note: Samarco is the mining company responsible for the spill)

Contrary to what you think Matheus’ drawing implies, Regência is not on an island. But I think Matheus is depicting the essence of what childhood used to be like at the mouth of the Doce River before the arrival of the orange plume of mud. His life, and that of his friends, revolved around the ocean and the river. Weekends were always spent swimming or fishing. On June 5th I will be returned to Regencia to witness one of the largest celebrations of the year, a festive commemoration of the town’s folk hero known as Caboclo Bernardo: a fisherman who saved over 100 lives when a ship sunk on the coast in 1887.

I’ve realized that the impact of this disaster is not simply economic or related to human health, it represents an assault on identity.

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I am presenting Ezio’s effortless poetry in the format that he wrote it on the back of his drawing. I often labor over what and how to write about what I’ve seen, so I marvel at the ease at which someone can profoundly tell their own story. I’m learning that as a journalist I need to support the voices of the people who live the stories everyday. Not only do they know so much more of the facts, but they can tell their own story in ways I can’t.

Map by Matheus dos Santos Ribeiro Words by Kamylla VItoría

“Regencia asks for help!
Regencia used to be a beautiful town; but a tragedy occurred on the 20th of November, everything changed, the landscape, etc…
Unfortunately it arrived to our community and took away our happiness, we can’t swim or fish anymore…Now what will we do since our food used to come from the river? Selling fish on the side often helped us get by.
And unfortunately Samarco’s dam in Minas Gerais broke and changed our landscape, but not only Regencia, it also affected other regions like Pouvação, Colatina…
However, not like in Regencia where fishing is prohibited and so is eating the fish!
My god, when will that end? When will the images of the past return: kids swimming, surfers surfing, fisherman fishing…
When? Will our Rio Doce, will our ocean return?”
Map by Matheus dos Santos Ribeiro
Words by Kamylla Vitoría

Many scientists predict that it will take decades for the Doce River to recover. If that comes to pass, these students are documenting childhood experiences that may not return to these communities anytime soon.

Engaging with the story maps changed how I looked at Regencia. It also changed how Regencia saw me. In the matter of one day I went from being the curious stranger with a notepad, to “tio”, which is  Portuguese for “uncle” and is how students address male teachers. In the days afterwards, I was greeted by students everywhere I went. They would walk with me and ask me barrages of questions. I knew I had to keep doing this on the road ahead.

I realize now that being a journalist requires much more than writing in a notepad and crafting great sentences. It can be about supporting young local voices as well— I’ve heard this referred to as community storytelling— and it is a challenging task without a doubt. It has seen me invited into rural 8th grade classrooms, forcing me to muster the best Portuguese I can. And it takes time, built at the pace of forming human relationships. I carried these drawings made by Regência’s youth with me (nearly 100 of them), from the coast to the origin of the mine spill inland. They are an incredible source of information. Each time I look at them I notice a new detail. And I’ve shown them repeatedly to others. They fuel conversation and ignite inspiration.

To learn more, follow Andres on Instagram at ax_camacho.

One comment

  1. Lora Hamrock · · Reply

    Thank you for your insightful reporting, I am glad the children are being given a voice.

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