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By Víctor L. Bacchetta
In the traditional press of the region, the spaces for environmental journalism, instead of being expanded, have been reduced, to the same extent that development policies generate growing socio-environmental conflicts, but the emergence of new actors and new technologies are forging new concepts and new ways of practicing journalism.
The Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, which raised awareness about the seriousness of the environmental crisis that the planet was experiencing, was also the great promoter of development in the following years of environmental journalism. However, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, various economic and political processes, both local and global, have been aggravating the problems and progressively slowing down that momentum.
The latest negotiations on climate change have failed to reach sufficient agreements to reduce greenhouse gases, nor funds for the most affected countries, nor respect for the common but differentiated responsibilities between those who caused climate chaos and those who suffer from it. Instead, decisions made on agriculture, forests and carbon markets will further aggravate the impacts on the majority.
Since the mid-1990s, Latin America has registered a "boom" of investments aimed at the extraction and export of its natural resources where, in addition to the secular exploitation of minerals, land and water are now added through plantations to large-scale for the production of soybeans for livestock feed, eucalyptus and pine trees for cellulose and paper, as well as corn, sugarcane and palm for fuel, etc.
The governments of the region, beyond their differences, agree on this development model through the program called Integration of South American Regional Infrastructure (IIRSA) formally approved by the presidents in Brasilia in 2000. Led by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), IIRSA promotes the works (dams, bridges, roads and ports) that facilitate the exit of raw materials to the global market.
Greater impacts and new actors
The extraction of minerals, gas and oil and large-scale agro-industrial plantations, together with the gigantic infrastructure works that accompany them, cause unprecedented environmental impacts. They endanger the livelihoods of neighboring project populations, farmers and rural interior dwellers, who mobilize to preserve basic ecosystem services such as water, land and air.
Thus, new social actors have emerged, be they community or citizen assemblies, neighborhood councils in an area or town. An antecedent of this phenomenon is the indigenous peoples who, by conserving their ethnic and cultural identity associated with the land, have always acted collectively and territorially. These new movements question the type of development, the current political institutions and the traditional actors of society.
Social participation, that is, the intervention of communities in decisions about the policies that affect them, seems a consolidated principle, but it is far from being fulfilled. Many communities have been compelled to defend the sustainability of their environment and their ways of life, but when they do, governments, investors, the mainstream press and even some NGOs often seek to manipulate them or are simply rejected.
These movements may have shortcomings due to the scarce participatory experience and the lack of transparency of governments and companies that make it difficult to access the information and analysis necessary to make decisions. But this participation has a strategic value, since public policies will only be able to respect the principles of sustainability if the population acquires a clear and firm position on the problems and their solutions.
Crisis in the big media
Associated with the dominant economic interests, the main newspapers, weeklies, radio and TV of the traditional press do not admit obstacles to their projects and do not give space to research on environmental and social impacts of the development model. At the same time, the promotion of public policies for the democratization of information, which would give support to the alternative press, is progressing very slowly and in a few countries.
Governments and the press adopt a schizophrenic attitude towards environmental problems and development policies: on the one hand, they express concern about the environmental crisis and the catastrophes that are being experienced, but, on the other, they unquestionably maintain the same notions of economic and technological development causing the crisis. Faced with a false dilemma, they always subordinate the former to the latter.
The growing concentration and monopoly of ownership of the media translates into greater limitations than usual when faced with investigations that question these economic projects and the government policies that support them. Meanwhile, the importance of environmental issues has become ever greater, in direct proportion to the impacts of the extractivist-exporter model and the social conflicts caused by it.
This situation seems to have even had an impact on the decline of the networks of environmental journalists, perceptible in the reduction of the flow of messages in recent years. But it is not a unique process in the region or exclusive to environmental journalism. Ignacio Ramonet has advanced to affirm that "journalists are on the way to extinction", given that the system does not need them or can reduce them to mere workers on an assembly line.
The debates of journalism
One of the classic discussions of journalism, and of environmental journalism in particular, is that of the journalist's degree of freedom with respect to the media on which he depends to receive his salary. It has been an endless discussion between utopians and realists, where the former defend an independent and critical journalism of the powers and the latter adapt to the margins tolerated by the company that hires them.
In the framework of the traditional press, the practical resolution of this dilemma has meant maintaining a constant tension between attempts at independence, not always unsuccessful but difficult to achieve and which basically depend on the individual capacity of the journalist to find the situation and form. suitable to publish a note of his authorship, and the inevitable assignment to a company, because it is necessary to work to live.
Another classic discussion, associated with the previous one, although not exclusively, is that of whether or not there is neutral or objective journalism. In general, the defense of objectivity has served the journalist to validate the consideration of all the positions at stake, in the face of the one-sided and tendentious voice of a source or media. Other times, neutrality helps the journalist not to take a position or subsist in the environment where he works.
The present crisis of journalism in the traditional press media is bringing new options for the exercise of the profession, which will undoubtedly reignite the aforementioned debates. But they are, at the same time, innovative alternatives that can help keep the flame of journalism alive, at least among those who consider it a tool to make citizens think and contribute to a more just and democratic society.
Asking if there is independent journalism is like asking if there is an independent art or science. Absolute independence is not possible, just as absolute objectivity is not possible.
On the other hand, a journalism independent of the dominant powers is possible and, at the same time, a journalism that helps citizens to form their own opinion. This type of journalism is more possible and necessary today than ever.
The new information and communication technologies have qualitatively modified the means and the conditions of access and control thereof. There are almost no limitations today to publish a newsletter, blog or video via the Web or to launch community radio that can present undistributed information to the public and expose your independent journalistic research and analysis of such news.
These technological resources can be put at the service of social protest or resistance movements that need reliable data and analysis independent of those offered by the mainstream press to base their concerns and support their struggles. This informative role is expanding today through social networks and is multiplied even more with face-to-face meetings where what we call "barefoot journalism" is practiced.
Contrary, then, to the tendencies towards absolute control of the media and the predictions about the end of journalism, these are real and fruitful alternatives for practicing journalism, without neglecting the possibilities that the traditional press media can still offer. Perhaps, instead of calling it environmental, we should speak of "socio-environmental journalism" to highlight the increasingly inseparable nature of both issues.
Victor L. Bacchetta (in GAL Newsletter, Chile, 4/1/12)