PBS Frontline acknowledges EDF’s comments, but doesn’t change its tune

Rachael Petersen, Amazon Basin Project intern, contributed to this post.

In the month since PBS’s Frontline aired its misguided story, “The Carbon Hunters“, on May 11, Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups have worked diligently to set the record straight.

The Frontline segment — which profiled two areas of Brazil purporting to show a questionable connection between the carbon market and tropical forest protection projects — was riddled with errors and misrepresentations.

Frontline has a much-deserved reputation for providing well-researched, hard-hitting investigative reports on controversial issues, which is why this report was so troubling.  I wrote in a personal email to my colleagues that Frontline is the video-journalism investigative reporting program of record, and that’s why I considered it  so important that its viewers understand that giving living forests a positive economic value can be beneficial to both indigenous communities living in the forests and to the global environment.

EDF, others respond to PBS Frontline World’s “The Carbon Hunters”

Armed with three decades of experience working on the ground with indigenous peoples to protect forests in Brazil and an intimate understanding of how forest carbon markets actually works, we contacted Frontline Executive Producer, David Fanning  and PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler.

In our correspondence with Frontline and in my post, “PBS’s ‘The Carbon Hunters’ – Hunting the Elusive Facts“, I emphasized the deeply flawed premises of the PBS feature, including the fact that carbon markets for forest carbon do not yet formally exist.  I also noted  that the problems Frontline depicted as effects of the “carbon market,” are in fact the result of conflicts arising from flawed conservation strategy that long pre-dates any notion of carbon crediting.  You can view our comments at PBS Frontline’s The Carbon Hunters webpage.

Producer Andres Cediel said in an email to EDF before the comments were posted:

We appreciate your thoughts and criticisms, and value your feedback and hope to have a continued discussion on these important issues.

EDF was not the only organization objecting to this program. Two of the major organizations discussed in “The Carbon Hunters” —The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which led the effort in the Atlantic Forest, along with its Brazilian partner Sociedade de Pesquisa em Vida Selvagem e Educação Ambiental (SPVS) — have also responded to “The Carbon Hunters“.

In a formal six-page response, TNC and SPVS described the important contribution the projects Frontline profiled have made in the implementation standards for successful policies for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), which, in turn, has provided valuable input for climate negotiations at the global level.  They said:

The PBS media stories omit relevant facts that explain the success of these projects for scientific research and generating social and economic benefits.

Despite Frontline’s reporting, TNC and SPVS report that the Guaraqueçaba projects lowered carbon emissions, helped protect one of the world’s most threatened forest habitats, and worked closely with forest communities to ensure they received benefits from conservation efforts.

Frontline writes back

Frontline’s response to us was certainly well thought out, and worth a read.

Senior Correspondent for the Center for Investigative Reporting Mark Schapiro and Producer Andres Cediel, the signers, thanked EDF for our comments and my “long commitment to forest protection, and [my] knowledge of the realities on the ground in Brazil.”

Regarding the goal of their reporting, they said:

Our journalistic project here, as throughout ‘The Carbon Hunters,’ was to look at hard at projects like Juma/REDD and consider pros and cons, in order to help inform public understanding and future debate at this early stage of so many critical questions about how best to address climate change.

But a little understanding of the reality on the ground and of the policy frameworks actually under discussion for forest carbon show that Schapiro and Cediel were really interested in manipulating viewers into taking their biased view for an actual discussion of pros and cons.

Consider, for example, that “The Carbon Hunters” consistently claims that U.S. companies are “buying up forests to offset their emissions”, even though just buying a forest isn’t eligible for credit under any existing or proposed system for carbon credit for reduced deforestation.  It’s no accident that the Carbon Hunters’ number one example of how the carbon market is supposedly hurting poor people in the forest, TNC and SPVS’s Atlantic Forest reserves, hasn’t generated a single carbon credit in ten years, not even in the voluntary market.  Frontline is trying to sell viewers a donkey it’s calling a camel.

Why this matters, and what it means going forward

EDF, as well as TNC, SPVS and a large number of other organizations in the environmental, business, and political community, understand that no REDD policies will be effective without initiatives that both respect and benefit the local communities that depend upon forests for their livelihoods.

While “The Carbon Hunters” raises questions about the implementation of some forest carbon projects, its makers pointedly ignored the best examples of how Reducing Emissions from Deforestation (REDD) can benefit local communities and studiously avoided even talking to most of the scientists, advocates and policy makers most engaged with these issues.

We’re grateful Frontline has engaged with us about the program, even if we can’t agree with the show’s ultimate message.

Mr. Schapiro and Mr. Cediel concluded their response to us by saying “we sincerely hope that [Mr. Schwartzman] will continue to engage with us passionately on future reports.”  It’s fine with us if they want to disqualify our remarks by calling them “passionate”, rather than, say “informed”, or “reasoned”, but at the end of the day they can’t hide their shoddy reporting and blatant bias.

We hope Frontline will, indeed, not only be open to our informed and reasoned responses in the future, but to helpful and informative engagements during their next round of  reporting.

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