The guards were carrying pistols and clubs and they looked ready to use them. They were barking out questions to the forestry service official that stood in front of them. What do you want? What are you doing here? Who are your companions?
I was standing a few feet behind the man from the forestry service and the guards kept looking in my direction. One of them had his hand on his gun.
We were on a remote road at the entrance to a mine in Jamari National Forest in the province of Rondonia, Brazil. My companions were forestry officials and I was there carrying out an undercover investigation.
I was a member of the Insight team of The Sunday Times and investigating the involvement of governments and corporations in the destruction of the world’s rainforests. We had been tipped off that the oil giant BP owned a mining operation that was damaging the Amazon.
I’d gotten in contact with Mauro Leonel at IAMA, a non-profit that investigates anthropological and environmental issues. He made contact with a group of forestry officials whose job it was to protect the forest and knew which mine was causing damage— the Santa Barbara mine in the Jamari National Forest, owned by a subsidiary of BP.
Some forestry service men agreed to take me there and try to talk their way in under the guise of an official inspection. Still, local people warned me that even the forestry service was often prevented from investigating the mines; the mining companies had the money, political power, and the guards and guns.
I was dressed as a forestry service official but spoke no Portuguese. At all costs I had to avoid answering questions.
My cover would be blown and if they searched me they would have found my hidden camera and notebook.
To my surprise, after an initial objection, we were permitted to drive though. Once inside, I was astonished. What had once been lush rainforest had become a moonscape of cratered, opencast mines.
Trees lay felled while others were shriveled and coated in dust. Holes up to 100 feet deep had been dug and large amounts of soil were being dumped haphazardly, silting up one of the main rivers.
No attempt had been made to repair the damage by replacing topsoil or replanting. The forestry official couldn’t believe his eyes. Mauro explained that big companies had determined the region’s public policies for decades.
The country had been run by a military regime from 1964 to 1985, and the 1980s became known in Brazil as the lost decade. Brazil had to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund and the exploitation of natural resources through mining were used to offset the country’s huge debts.
There was a bitter irony to what was happening to the forest. A multimillion-dollar advertising campaign was underway by those operating these mines to convince their western customers that conservation was their creed. BP was going green.
Burying the truth
Back at the London headquarters of BP, I sat across from an impressive line-up of executives: senior management, public relations personnel, a lawyer, and a geologist. The setup seemed designed to intimidate, six against one.
I had prepared for the meeting, organizing the notes based on what I’d actually seen and discussed with local officials first-hand. On their side of the table, surrounded by employees with impressive sounding titles, stood surveys, maps, studies they had commissioned, and other official-looking legal papers with an alternative interpretation of the facts.
It was a common tactic used by large corporations faced with awkward questions, burying the truth beneath the paperwork.
Since monitoring land use in the wilds of the Amazon was not an exact science, the amount of rainforest that had been destroyed was being disputed. The mining company claimed the total amount directly cleared for opencast mining was 13,500 acres, but a survey commissioned by the World Bank estimated that the damaged area amounted to 220,000 acres.
The executives, when questioned about whether the balance between commerce and conservation was being achieved in their mining operation, replied that they held the legal rights to exploit the area two years before forest protection was established. The argument amounted to this: we were there first and it is up to the Brazilian government to sort out any conflicts.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian government reacted to our story. But they didn’t attack the mining company or The Sunday Times.
A letter from Mauro Leonel arrived two months after my story was published, reminding me that serious journalism has consequences —it is never just a story. The forestry service officials were being accused of incompetence by the government. Their jobs were under threat.
Whereas Western media companies will generally defend their journalists, sources on the ground do not have that level of support. When I tried to reach out to the men who had helped me, I got no response.
All I knew when I started the investigation was that BP owned a mine – under the name of an unknown subsidiary – somewhere in the Amazon.
It is highly unlikely that any major media organization would mount such an expensive investigation now based on such scant information. But the damage is still being done.
Much of the blame for the current predicament lies with the increasingly successful use of truth suppression, made easier by our short attention spans.
In the years after our groundbreaking investigation, the destruction of the rainforest became a major story, but governments and corporations know that if they just wait long enough, the media will move on.
All these years later, deforestation in Brazil is reaching a record high. In 2018, Brazil’s supreme court upheld a law reducing rainforest protections, enabling landowners to reduce the percentage of forested land while allowing cultivation closer to areas particularly subject to erosion.
The Amazon is still essential—and it still needs our help—but as long as it remains old news, money is the only green thing in sight.
Stephen Davis worked for The Sunday Times in both London and Los Angeles and was news editor and foreign editor of The Independent on Sunday. He has been a war and foreign correspondent, a TV producer for 60 Minutes and 20/20, and a documentary film maker for the BBC and Discovery.
Stephen's latest book, Truthteller: An Investigative Reporter’s Journey Through the World of Truth Prevention, Fake News, and Conspiracy Theories is shedding light on news corruption worldwide and is available wherever good books are sold.