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2020 Topical Reporting, Climate Change finalist

These 3 supertrees can protect us from climate collapse. But can we protect them?

About the Project

This project came about when Eliza Barclay, the lead writer and editor, attended the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum in 2018 and left with a strong sense that tropical forests were undervalued outside conservation circles. She had one particularly memorable conversation with a staffer from The Nature Conservancy who told her that nature-based climate solutions were constantly being eclipsed by technological solutions, like solar panels, in our tech-worshipping culture.

Eliza was inspired to figure out how to explain the extraordinary services provided by tropical forests in a unique and compelling way. Eventually, an idea emerged: Let’s tell the stories of three distinct tree species and their superpowers.

After choosing trees in Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of those countries’ high deforestation rates, our strategy was to frame each tree through its superpower and detail how deforestation threatens it. This meant explaining not only the tree itself but also its unique place in a regional and global ecosystem. It required months of reporting — outside of the time spent on the ground in each country — to understand and convey concisely the complex ecological and economic issues at stake.

Our project took inspiration from the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory by Richard Powers, in which he made the trees the central characters, something that hadn’t been done in other journalistic stories on tropical deforestation. We also focused on the local scientists rather than the foreign white scientists who are often working in these regions.

To report the story, we paired reporters with local photographers and sent them into protected areas deep inside Brazil, Indonesia, and the DRC to meet the scientists studying the potential collapse of the forest ecosystems.

We initially planned to visit West Papua, Indonesia, because it has the largest expanse of pristine mangroves in that country. But after three months of waiting, the Indonesian government denied Eliza’s foreign journalist visa application for that region — with no explanation. (It routinely denies foreign journalists visas to West Papua in order to prevent media coverage of an autonomous movement there.) Eliza then had to find another region to visit and a new team to accompany. She was very fortunate that research scientist Novi Susetyo Adi was willing to help her get a visa to travel with his team to East Kalimantan. Each country had unique access and travel intricacies that we had to navigate.

This project would not have been possible without the financial support of the Pulitzer Center.