People speaking on a stage in front of a mural

Lincoln Award Recognizes Outstanding Land Policy Journalism in Latin America

By Jon Gorey, December 11, 2023


Land policy decisions may not pack the headline punch of celebrity gossip or World Cup comebacks, but they can be far more consequential to people’s everyday lives. In that spirit, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy awarded prizes for excellence in journalism on urban policy, sustainable development, and climate change at the 2023 Latin American Conference of Investigative Journalism (COLPIN) in Mexico City.  

The winning entries included an exploration of how climate finance mechanisms trap poorer countries in a cycle of debt and dependency, an account of indigenous land grabbing by an unscrupulous palm oil exporter, and a look at how luxury megaprojects in a Mexico City neighborhood threaten to drain the water supply for longtime residents. (Jump to the list of winners.)

This marks the second year that the Premio Lincoln has been awarded at the prestigious conference, which includes its own investigative reporting competition, as well as dozens of workshops and panel discussions held over four days. COLPIN is organized by the Lima, Peru–based Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute), or IPYS.  

Competition for the 2023 award—which drew 141 entries from 47 cities and 15 countries—was inspiring, says Laura Mullahy, senior program manager at the Lincoln Institute. The contest attracted so many worthy entries that she and the other judges decided to name three honorable mention winners this year, in addition to the top prizes. The 2023 winners hailed from Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico; last year’s winning entries were published in Mexico and Colombia.

The breadth of geography, topics, and media formats represented in the contest is an encouraging sign for Latin American journalism, Mullahy says—as are the winners themselves. “It was really very heartening to meet these talented, young, earnest journalists,” says Mullahy, who presented the awards both years. 

Empowering the Press

The Lincoln Institute has a long history of engaging journalists with its research, both in the United States—where for over 20 years, the organization’s Journalists Forum has convened members of the press around a central topic, such as climate change and housing—and in Latin America. The institute began offering land policy training classes for Brazilian journalists a decade ago, when economist Martim Smolka was the director of the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) program. “Back when Martim was director,” Mullahy recalls, “he always said, ‘There are three audiences I would do anything to get in a room, but they’re hard to get: members of parliament, judges, and journalists.’ So that was always in the back of my mind.”

At the time, Mullahy says, there was very little coverage of land policy in Latin American media, and what coverage did exist wasn’t always well informed; it wasn’t a topic journalists in the region encountered in their formal education. “Land policy is a little bit niche,” Mullahy says. “And so the thought was, well, maybe we’re the ones who can provide this.” 

With the goal of introducing core land policy concepts to journalists, the Lincoln Institute then partnered with IPYS to host a larger series of Latin America-wide training courses. Each session drew 30 or more participants, all of whom had to submit professional clips to be accepted into the program. By 2022, enough journalists were creating well-researched, engaging land use stories throughout Latin America that Mullahy and Adriana León at IPYS discussed the idea of offering a prize for urban land use reporting. “The stars seemed to align,” Mullahy says, and the inaugural Premio Lincoln drew more than 160 entries from 19 countries.

Lincoln Award recipients including Jennifer González Posadas, foreground, participated in a panel discussion at the 2023 Latin American Conference of Investigative Journalism.

In addition to cash prizes—$3,000 for first place, $2,000 for second, and $1,000 for third—Lincoln Award winners are invited to attend and participate in the four-day COLPIN conference. At the 2022 conference in Rio de Janeiro, “Our panel discussion with the award recipients and two seasoned journalists who served on the selection committee highlighted how land policy-related stories can be developed as compelling journalistic reporting,” Mullahy says. This year’s winners joined a trio of veteran journalists—Miguel Jurado and Vanina Berghella of Argentina, and Chico Regueira of Brazil—for a session on researching cities and urban development.

Journalists are important allies to the Lincoln Institute’s mission, Mullahy says, but even those with an interest in land policy issues don’t always get the support they need from their editors or organizations. So it’s important to recognize and support those who bring quality urban and land use reporting into the mainstream.

Alongside the Lincoln Institute’s more than 30-year tradition of conducting research and offering free professional development courses in Latin America, the efforts to encourage and celebrate informed land use journalism is paying off, and not just for the prizewinners. Mullahy can see positive changes in Latin American land management practices “in which Lincoln Institute courses and their students have had an influence and, in some cases, an active role,” she told the LatAm Journalism Review. “We know our presence can make a difference.” 

2023 Winners

Here are the winners of the 2023 Lincoln Prize for Journalism on Urban Policy, Sustainable Development, and Climate Change: 

First place: Hassel Fallas and Michelle Soto from Costa Rica for their eight-article series, “¡Muéstrame el dinero! La ruta de los fondos climáticos en un mundo cada vez más caliente” (“Show Me the Money! The Route of Climate Funds in an Increasingly Hot World”), published in a collaboration between La Data Cuenta and Ojo al Clima.  

The series explores the global climate financing system to reveal a complex but unequal financial architecture that favors the interests of the Global North and hurts the most vulnerable countries, who have contributed least to the problem. Based on the analysis of databases from multiple sources, the series signals the need to correct the inequities in the distribution of resources and protect the planet for future generations.  

Second place: Karla Mendes for her article “Exportadora de óleo de palma acusada de fraude, grilagem de terras em cemitérios quilombolas” (“Brazil Palm Oil Exporter Accused of Fraud, Land-Grabbing in Quilombola Cemeteries”), published in Mongabay, Brazil.  

The article exposes a wide range of land-grabbing allegations against Agropalma, the only Brazilian company with a sustainability certificate issued by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), claiming that more than half of the 264,000 acres registered by Agropalma was derived from fraudulent land titles and even the creation of a fake land registration bureau. Moreover, the allegations assert that part of the area occupied by Agropalma overlaps with ancestral Quilombola land, including two cemeteries. The feature is available in three languages: 

Portuguese:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3  
English: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3  
Spanish: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Third place: Alejandro Melgoza Rocha and Jennifer González Posadas for “Ciudad sin agua. Un pueblo contra el gigante de concreto” (“A City Without Water: The People Against a Concrete Giant”), published in Mexico’s N+.  

This multimedia feature and video examine the complex issue of water scarcity in Mexico City, where the construction of luxury towers and shopping centers has depleted aquifers in the metropolitan zone, putting the ecosystems of the city at risk. As communities and indigenous peoples suffer from water shortages, road congestion, destruction of green areas, increased costs of services, and dispossession of their territory, the inaction of the authorities against developers has resulted in chaotic conflict. The article tells the story of residents taking on the most powerful player in the real estate industry.   

Honorable mention: Thiago Medaglia, Brazil, for “Aquazônia—A Floresta-Água” (“Aquazonia—The Water Rainforest”)  

Honorable mention: Aldo Facho DedeKenneth Sánchez Gonzales, and Vania García Pestana, Peru, for the podcast series “Ciudades Que Inspiran” (“Cities That Inspire”) 

Honorable mention: Juan Diego Ortiz Jiménez, of Colombia, for “Nómadas, Airbnb y falta de casas: en Medellín no hay cama para tanta gente” (“Nomads, Airbnb, and Housing Shortage: In Medellín, There Aren’t Enough Beds”) 

2022 Winners  

First place: Alejandro Melgoza Rocha (N+ Focus, Mexico), for “Tulum: un paraiso ilegal” (“Tulum, an Illegal Paradise”) 

Second place: Mónica Rivera Rueda (El Espectador, Colombia), for “Lo que debe saber del POT en Bogotá” (“What You Need to Know about the Land Management Plan in Bogotá”)  

Third place: Andrés de la Peña Subacius (Zona Docs, Mexico), for “La ciudad inhabitable: ¿Redensificación o destrucción de la vivienda?” (“The Inhabitable City: Housing Redensification or Destruction?”) 


Jon Gorey is a staff writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Lead image: The opening ceremony of the 2023 Latin American Conference of Investigative Journalism (COLPIN) at the Colegio San Ildefonso, Mexico City. The backdrop is Diego Rivera’s first mural, La Creación (Creation), 1922. Credit: Laura Mullahy.