Learning together, apart: training indigenous reporters during Coronavirus

by Fiorella Fiestas & Diego Perez

This is a story about a long-planned film-making course, and five determined young indigenous reporters. It is a story about the pandemic, and how we managed to overcome all the obstacles thrown up by Peru’s State of Emergency to remotely train these young people to produce films capturing the realities of daily indigenous life under the shadow of COVID-19, in Madre de Dios in southern Peru. Perhaps most importantly, it is a story about providing indigenous communities with the means to tell their own stories, both now and in the future.

In March this year, we at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA) were busily putting the finishing touches to planning for a course which had been in the pipeline since 2019, in which 20 young people would gather in the regional capital Puerto Maldonado for an intensive two-week reporting/photography/video training carried out by the NGO, If Not Us Then Who (INUTW), complete with lectures from international experts, hands-on training and even field trips. Everything was ready. We were ready. And then COVID-19 struck.

Within weeks, flights were cancelled, and the entire country ground to a halt. The first deaths were reported in Puerto Maldonado, but we had no idea what was happening in the remote indigenous communities scattered across Madre de Dios. Our bitter disappointment at seeing our plans turned upside down was swiftly replaced with a realisation that at the exact the moment when our training for young reporters seemed impossible, we needed reporters living in those communities and sharing their stories more than ever. We had to do something!

"Our bitter disappointment at seeing our plans turned upside down was swiftly replaced with a realisation that at the exact the moment when our training for young reporters seemed impossible, we needed reporters living in those communities and sharing their stories more than ever. We had to do something!"

We needed to act fast; COVID-19 was advancing rapidly in Madre de Dios, and rumors were swirling that the virus was racing through indigenous communities, where the authorities was entirely absent. We are aware of course that Peru as a country has suffered badly in the pandemic, but perhaps most unsettling was how little we really knew what was happening in indigenous villages where health infrastructure hardly exists, and little help is available.

We decided to carry out a small test – to see whether we could train young reporters entirely remotely, relying on mobile phones and internet connections to keep us all in touch. But our challenge was suddenly more than just training – it was also to try to fill a scary information gap, centred on Indigenous Peoples and the impacts of the pandemic.

We gave ourselves just one month to plan, launch and complete our new remote training.

We looked at lists of communities where young people had shown an interest in joining the original course, and identified those places with workable access to internet. We then faced the tough challenge of compressing 14 days of face-to-face training into a shorter course, conducted entirely as virtual sessions. Our answer was to identify key knowledge, compress and synthesise the information as much as possible, into three modules, for reporting, photography and video.  This information was translated into scripts and we produced videos (see link) for the theoretical sections. For the practical parts, we conceived group discussions, with WhatsApp used to provide one-on-one guidance and advice to students. It was a race against the clock, but maybe it also helped us create something compact, focusing only on what was most important.

Days would look like this: during the virtual group sessions, the module to be worked on was briefly presented, then the students watched the video on their own, and returned to the group discussion to unpick what they’d seen. Finally, the rest of the day was for practicing the skills they’d learnt. Sessions were great. Everyone was inspired by what we were trying to achieve, everybody was committed to telling their community’s stories.

Still, our carefully crafted schedules fell apart almost at once. We quickly realised that given constraints, flexibility was key, and that meant finding routines that worked for everyone – importantly leaving more time for practice. Whilst some things were harder than we had anticipated, others were easier: before the course we had envisioned challenges overcoming the “digital gap”. How familiar would young indigenous people be with the technology we were using? As it turned out we need not have worried. They are already “digital”, and everyone managed their equipment well enough to participate effectively. The difference from urban kids was really not so big at all.

And after all this hard work, what were the results? Well, we’re incredibly proud to say that everyone completed the course and four out of the five produced a reportage, documenting the challenges of COVID-19 in their communities. The work they produced not only gave us a vital glimpse into the realities being experienced by indigenous people during the Coronavirus pandemic, but also highlighted how important community reporters are. Having the skills is one thing, but being inside these communities, knowing them intimately, that is essential, especially now, when travel is so restricted.

The films will now be shared globally by the magazine Actualidad Ambiental and the Tenure Facility. Of course, as happy as we are, we know there is more to be done. We need to help the reporters be more self-reliant, building their skills so they can do more without our technical support. We also know we need to reach more young people in more communities and provide them with the training they need – because the potential significance is massive, both now and in a post-pandemic world. Even in Peru most people far away in the big cities have hardly any idea what life is really like for Indigenous Peoples. Journalists only show up when something big happens, but the problems Indigenous Peoples face aren’t always the big things; often it’s the everyday challenges like schools that don’t work and kids dying of preventable diseases. This is a chance for indigenous reporters to show not just the problems their people face, but also the richness of their culture, their potential. We’re proud to be a part of that.

Below you can watch all four videos (in Spanish), to see what our young filmmakers achieved.

Fiorella Fiestas is a communications specialist for the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), one of the Tenure Facility’s collaborating partners.  She has recently focused on environmental journalism related to illegal logging and Indigenous Peoples across the Amazon. Diego Perez is a filmmaker and photographer, providing communications expertise to the SPDA. Diego has worked for the last decade with Indigenous People all over the Peruvian Amazon, mostly covering issues related to conservation, and threats to their territories and way of life. You can see his work on Instagram: @Romerodiegoperez

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