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Brazilian Telenovela Brings Plight of the Amazon to Global Audiences

Aruanas (“Sentinels of Nature”) aims to raise awareness of the threats to the rainforest, indigenous communities and society at large, by bringing these threats closer to home.

Environmental crimes in the Amazon are the subject of a new Brazilian drama series, Aruanas.

The Globo and Maria Farinha Films co-production, which brought Greenpeace on board as a technical advisor, is now streaming on Globoplay in Brazil and on the Vimeo-powered platform in more than 150 countries.

Co-written by Estela Renner and Marcos NistiAruanas seeks to highlight the critical and dangerous world of environmental advocates, who risk their own lives to fight for environmental and social justice, and a more sustainable world for future generations.

The environmental thriller follows three female friends who set up an NGO called Aruana that investigates the suspicious activities of a mining company operating in the Amazon. The activists have each discovered evidence of a renowned national mining company running an illegal project. The suspenseful plot involves an anonymous cry for help, mysterious illnesses, an assassination and threats to indigenous people. And in true telenovela fashion, along with the intrigue as the characters get closer to exposing environmental crimes and secrets, they also grapple with their own ghosts and personal dramas.

But while the premise depicts a real-life environmental crisis in deservedly dramatic fashion, the producers say the intent is not to leave viewers with a feeling of doom.

Aruanas is an invitation for us to dream of a more just and sustainable future,” Maria Farinha Films said in a statement. “It is entertainment put at the service of a pressing and important global cause, by taking the debate about the conservation of rainforests and work of environmental activists to the whole world.”

While fictional, Aruanas highlights the real, life-threatening nature of environmental journalism and activism in Brazil’s Amazon — 57 environmental defenders were killed in the country in 2017. Over the last three years, Brazil has ranked number one in number of activists killed; and in 2018, the Amazon reported a deforestation spike of 14 percent, the worst rate in a decade.

“We want this show to make the environment a subject for the average family at the dinner table — to make it a more everyday topic for Brazilians,” series co-creator Marcos Nisti told the Guardian. “This is not other people’s problem — it’s our problem. It’s a problem for all human existence."

More and more TV and film productions are aiming to increase public awareness and understanding of some of our most critical environmental issues, but most — including the BBC's "Blue Planet II", Netflix's Chasing Coral and Showtime's "Years of Living Dangerously" — are presented documentary-style. Aruanas joins a smaller category of productions — such as Netflix's Okja and Chipotle's 2014 comedy series, "Farmed and Dangerous" — in expanding the narrative category.

“We want to enter people’s hearts,” Nisti said. “It’s not the normal way we get information about global warming, but it’s a way to connect with people.”

Aruanas shines a light on the ongoing battle over the world’s largest rainforest during a time of political domination in Brazil by agribusiness interests. As the Guardian points out, the sector is represented by the largest caucus in Brazil’s congress — the ruralista bloc —and in 2018, the country elected its longtime ally, Jair Bolsonaro, as president. Since then, Bolsonaro has followed in the footsteps of the current administration here in the US — launching an unprecedented attack on environmental protections, eliminating the post of secretary on climate change and stripping the authority of the environment ministry. Bolsonaro argues that environmental protections in the Amazon hinder economic development and has promised that “not one more centimeter” of land would be allocated to indigenous tribes.

As co-creator and director Estela Renner told Drama Quarterly: “Mining is a huge environmental issue. We talk about illegal gold mining, which puts so much mercury into the rivers, everything becomes sick — the rivers, the soil and the people.”

The show’s focus on sustainability was also reportedly reflected throughout the production itself. To reduce waste, the series recycled and reused clothing in 90 percent of all of its costumes. Of the crew and leading actors, 47 percent were women, while a third of the cast were from the region of the Amazon where the series was filmed.

From July to October, the producers say 50 percent of online sales on will be donated to an undisclosed initiative designed to protect the Amazon.

Renner told Drama Quarterly that the goal is to continue to follow the NGO and its activists in future seasons, as they explore other aspects of and contributors to climate change — such as the oil industry and the oceans; work is already progressing on a second season, which will explore a different type of environmental crime.