Q&A: Gabriela Sá Pessoa on Brazilian politics, human rights in the Amazon, and AI
Gabriela Sá Pessoa is a journalist passionate about the intersection of human rights and climate change. She came to MIT from The Washington Post, where she worked from her home country of Brazil as a news researcher reporting on the Amazon, human rights violations, and environmental crimes. Before that, she held roles at two of the most influential media outlets in Brazil: Folha de S.Paulo, covering local and national politics, and UOL, where she was assigned to coronavirus coverage and later joined the investigative desk.
Sá Pessoa was awarded the 2023 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship by the International Women’s Media Foundation, which supports its recipient with research opportunities at MIT and further training at The Boston Globe and The New York Times. She is currently based at the MIT Center for International Studies. Recently, she sat down to talk about her work on the Amazon, recent changes in Brazilian politics, and her experience at MIT.
Q: One focus of your reporting is human rights and environmental issues in the Amazon. As part of your fellowship, you contributed to a recent editorial in The Boston Globe on fighting deforestation in the region. Why is reporting on this topic important?
A: For many Brazilians, the Amazon is a remote and distant territory, and people living in other parts of the country aren’t fully aware of all of its problems and all of its potential. This is similar to the United States — like many people here, they don’t see how they could be related to the human rights violations and the destruction of the rainforest that are happening.
But, we are all complicit in the destruction in some ways because the economic forces driving the deforestation of the rainforest all have a market, and these markets are everywhere, in Brazil and here in the U.S. I think it is part of journalism to show people in the U.S., Brazil, and elsewhere that we are part of the problem, and as part of the problem, we should be part of the solution by being aware of it, caring about it, and taking actions that are within our power.
In the U.S., for example, voters can influence policy like the current negotiations for financial support for fighting deforestation in the Amazon. And as consumers, we can be more aware — is the beef we are consuming related to deforestation? Is the timber on our construction sites coming from the Amazon?
Truth is, in Brazil, we have turned our backs to the Amazon for so long. It’s our duty to protect it for the sake of climate change. If we don’t take care of it, there will be serious consequences to our local climate, our local communities, and for the whole world. It’s a huge matter of human rights because our living depends on that, both locally and globally.
Q: Before coming to MIT, you were at The Washington Post in São Paulo, where you contributed to reporting on the recent presidential election. What changes do you expect to see with the new Lula administration?
A: To climate and environment, the first signs were positive. But the optimism did not last a semester, as politics is imposing itself. Lula is facing increasing difficulty building a majority in a conservative Congress, over which agribusiness holds tremendous power and influence. As we speak, environmental policy is under Congress’s attack. A committee in the House has just passed a ruling drowning power from the environmental minister, Marina Silva, and from the recently created National Indigenous People Ministry, led by Sonia Guajajara. Both Marina and Sonia are global ecological and human rights champions, and I wonder what the impact would be if Congress ratifies these changes. It is still unclear how it would impact the efforts to fight deforestation.
In addition, there is an internal dispute in the government between environmentalists and those in favor of mining and big infrastructure projects. Petrobras, the state-run oil company, is trying to get authorization to research and drill offshore oil reserves in the mouth of the Amazon River. The federal environmental protection agency did a conclusive report suspending the operation, saying it is critical and threatens the region’s sensitive environment and indigenous communities. And, of course, it would be another source of greenhouse gas emissions.
That said, it’s not a denialist government. I should mention the quick response from the administration to the Yanomami genocide earlier this year. In January, an independent media organization named Sumaúma reported on the deaths of over five hundred indigenous children from the Yanomami community in the Amazon over the past four years. This was a huge shock in Brazil, and the administration responded immediately. They sent task forces to the region and are now expelling the illegal miners that were bringing diseases and were ultimately responsible for these humanitarian tragedies. To be clear: It is still a problem. It’s not solved. But this is already a good example of positive action.
Fighting deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado, another biome critical to climate regulation in Brazil, will not be easy. Rebuilding the environmental policy will take time, and the agencies responsible for enforcement are understaffed. In addition, environmental crime has become more sophisticated, connecting with other major criminal organizations in the country. In April, for the first time, there was a reduction in deforestation in the Amazon after two consecutive months of higher numbers. These are still preliminary data, and it is still too early to confirm whether they signal a turning point and may indicate a tendency for deforestation to decrease. On the other hand, the Cerrado registered record deforestation in April.
There are problems everywhere in the economy and politics that Lula will have to face. In the first week of the new term, on Jan. 8, we saw an insurrection in Brasília, the country’s capital, from Bolsonaro voters who wouldn’t accept the election results. The events resembled what Americans saw in the Capitol attacks in 2021. We also seem to have imported problems from the United States, like mass killings in schools. We never used to have them in Brazil, but we are seeing them now. I’m curious to see how the country will address those problems and if the U.S. can also inspire solutions to that. That’s something I’m thinking about, being here: Are there solutions here? What are they?
Q: What have you learned so far from MIT and your fellowship?
A: It’s hard to put everything into words! I’m mostly taking courses and attending lectures on pressing issues to humanity, like existential threats such as climate change, artificial intelligence, biosecurity, and more.
I’m learning about all these issues, but also, as a journalist, I think that I’m learning more about how I can incorporate the scientific approach into my work; for example, being more pro-positive. I am already a rigorous journalist, but I am thinking about how I can be more rigorous and more transparent about my methods. Being in the academic and scientific environment is inspiring that way.
I am also learning a lot about how to cover scientific topics and thinking about how technology can offer us solutions (and problems). I’m learning so much that I think I will need some time to digest and fully understand what this period means for me!
Q: You mentioned artificial intelligence. Would you like to weigh in on this subject and what you have been learning?
A: It has been a particularly good semester to be at MIT. Generative artificial intelligence, which became more popular after ChatGPT, has been a topic of intense discussion this semester, and I was able to attend many classes, seminars, and events about AI here, especially from a policy perspective.
Algorithms have influenced the economy, society, and public health for many years. It has had great outcomes, but also injustice. Popular systems like ChatGPT have made this technology incredibly popular and accessible, even for those with no computer knowledge. This is scary and, at the same time, very exciting. Here, I learned that we need guardrails for artificial intelligence, just like other technologies. Think of the pharmaceutical or automobile industries, which have to meet safety criteria before putting a new product on the market. But with artificial intelligence, it’s going to be different; supply chains are very complex and sometimes not very transparent, and the speed at which new resources develop is so fast that it challenges the policymaker’s ability to respond.
Artificial intelligence is changing the world radically. It’s exciting to have the privilege of being here and seeing these discussions take place. After all, I have a future to report on. At least, I hope so!
Q: What are you working on going forward?
A: After MIT, I am going to New York, where I’ll be working with The New York Times in their internship program. I’m really excited about that because it will be a different pace from MIT. I am also doing research on carbon credit markets and hope to continue that project, either in a reporting or academic environment.
Honestly, I feel inspired to keep studying. I would love to spend more time here at MIT. I would love to do a master’s or join any program here. I’m going to work on coming back to academia because I think that I need to learn more from the academic environment. I hope that it’s at MIT because honestly, it’s the most exciting environment that I’ve ever been in, with all the people here from different fields and different backgrounds. I’m not a scientist, but it’s inspiring to be with them, and if there’s a way that I could contribute to their work in a way that they’re contributing to my work, I’ll be thrilled to spend more time here. More