The seed for the Rainforest Journalism Fund was planted and nurtured in Brazil by a group of locally-based correspondents who were concerned the Amazon was underreported, even though it is one of the biggest stories of our age, or any age.
They knew from experience the world's biggest tropical rainforest had never been more important for climate regulation, rainfall circulation, habitat provision, and as a home for Indigenous communities. On reporting trips, they had seen how this landscape was being devastated by logging, mining, and farming, often on illegally seized land. They knew from interviews with scientists that tree clearance and fire were pushing the forest perilously close to the point of no return with dire implications for global life support systems. Yet, they were also aware from personal experience how hard it could be to persuade editors to fund expensive, time-consuming visits to remote regions at a time of falling circulations and shrinking advertising income. For freelancers and smaller news companies, the prices were often prohibitive.
To address this, they drew up plans for an Amazon journalism fund that would cover the costs of flights, cars, boats, hotels, photographers, and other expenses. It would enable reporters to do stories that would not otherwise be possible. It would raise the bar for rainforest journalism.
The idea had been knocking around in the head of Jonathan Watts, the Latin America correspondent for The Guardian, for several years before he finally decided to do something about it in early 2017 by sounding out two other Rio-based correspondents and friends, Simon Romero of The New York Times and Thomas Fischermann of Die Zeit. The first discussions of how the fund might work took place in a bar in Ipanema, and the plan was subsequently honed over meals, barbecues, and the odd tumbler of Talisker.
Aware that the core group was too gringo-centric, it was expanded to include three of Brazil's leading Amazon journalists: Altamira-based writer and El País columnist Eliane Brum, Valor Econômico environment correspondent Daniela Chiaretti, and Manaus-based reporter for Folha de S.Paulo Fabiano Maisonnave. Everyone was involved on a personal level independent of their organisations.
These founders refined the idea and sounded out Amazon experts and activists, who expressed support. It was agreed the fund would provide grants for both domestic and foreign journalists. Applications would be voted on by a committee composed of the founding members, who would volunteer their services. They would need a major donor or donors, who would have no editorial control. A third-party organization would be needed to administer the program. The goal was to provide as much money to as many good projects as possible with decision-making concentrated at the regional level.
All they needed now was a considerable sum of money. Their proposed budget for five years of Amazon grants and administration was $1 million. Who would they ask for that amount? In this regard, they were fortunate. Watts had previously attended press freedom conferences organized by the Norwegian government and SKUP, Norwegian Foundation for a Free and Investigative Press. As a former Asian environment correspondent, he was also aware that Norway had earmarked substantial funds for overseas climate projects, including $1 billion for the Amazon. It made sense, therefore, to approach the government in Oslo before any other potential donors. On 5 April 2017, Watts sent the first tentative inquiry to Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI). Sketching out the plan in an email, he wrote, "I and my Brazil-based journalistic colleagues simply see a growing threat to the Amazon and an opportunity for our profession to play a bigger part in reducing the impact. Please let me know what you think." The very next day, he was delighted (and not a little surprised) to receive an encouraging response.
Over the following five months, Watts, representing the founding journalists (or the Rainforest Journalism Fund Amazon Advisory Committee, as they started to be known), worked with Norwegian officials on a proposal in phone calls, WhatsApp chats, and meetings in London and Oslo. From the beginning, there was broad agreement on the key elements sketched out in the original plan, including the organizational structure, the need for a full-time coordinator, annual meetings, the importance of complete editorial independence, and a key role in decision making on grants by locally based journalists and experts.
The remit was widened to other Amazon nations such as Peru and Colombia, which led to the strengthening of the RFJ Advisory Committee with a representative from the Spanish-speaking area of the region. To Watts' delight, NICFI was keen to expand the fund to the two other principal rainforest regions—the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia—something the RJF founders had discussed among themselves but felt it would be too much to ask for at first. Now they could move at three times the scale. Those regions were to have their own Advisory Committees.
The primary challenge was to find a suitable partner to administer the program. In October 2017, the Norwegians identified as a lead candidate the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit journalism and education organization with long experience in climate reporting and in managing complex collaborations. In developing the initiative’s structure, the Norwegians and the Pulitzer Center both stressed an emphasis on capacity building within the regions and having the regional Advisory Committees take the lead in vetting reporting proposals.
The RJF founders, NICFI, and the Pulitzer Center were clear from the beginning that a local and regional perspective and in-depth knowledge were prerequisites for the fund’s success. To cement this approach the Amazon Advisory Committee in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center selected veteran journalist Jan Rocha as the first coordinator in 2018. (She was succeeded in 2020 by Verónica Goyzueta.) In 2019, the Amazon Advisory Committee took on board two new members: Camilo Jiménez Santofimio from Bogotá and Nelly Luna Amancio from Lima.
Agreement on the five-year, $5.5 million initiative, first announced in Rio de Janeiro, was formally launched on 12 September 2018 at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, with remarks by Norway’s Minister of Climate Ola Elvestuen, Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer, Watts, and Brum. “My hope is that this fund will contribute to knowledge, understanding, and better policies,” Elvestuen said.
Thus far, the RJF has resulted in more than 100 projects across the globe, with partnerships ranging from community radio to major international news organizations. It has made possible dozens of in-person and virtual gatherings, from workshops and hostile-environment training to joint convenings with scientists and public-policy experts—and now, a dedicated website that beautifully presents the work of RJF grantees. RJF’s success has contributed immensely to the Pulitzer Center’s growing emphasis on rainforests and climate, most recently with the launch in late 2020, again with Norway’s support, of the Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN).
The result of this uniquely collaborative history is that more light is being cast on rainforests around the globe—and on the consequences of what happens in those regions for this and future generations. There is still a great deal of work to do and improvements to make, but the seed first planted by a group of journalists in Brazil is now well-established, growing fast, and has strong prospects to thrive.
— June 3, 2021