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AP’s global ‘Sacred Rivers’ series explores hallowed waterways and cultures under threat

Millaray Huichalaf, a Mapuche machi — a healer and spiritual guide — rides in a boat on the Pilmaiquen River in Los Rios, southern Chile, July 12, 2022. During years of training to become a machi, she started having dreams about Kintuantü, a ngen, or protector spirit, living by a broad bend of the Pilmaiquen. “Through dreams and visions in trance, Kintuantü told me that I had to speak for him because he was dying,” Huichalaf says. She has led a sometimes-violent battle against hydroelectric plants on the Pilmaiquen, which flows through rolling pastures from a lake in the Andes’ foothills. “I am the river too, we’re as sacred as the river,” says. “At the same time as we’re fighting for the river, we’re in the process of territorial recovery and spiritual reconstruction.” (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

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A single story pitch grew into this ambitious six-part series produced and supported by more than 30 AP staffers across departments, formats and international borders.

Luis Andres Henao, a religion reporter who is particularly interested in stories that intersect with climate change, came up with the theme of sacred rivers and started looking into recent trends for a story pitch to religion editors David Crary and Holly Meyer. Crary reached out across the AP, consulting with climate director Peter Prengaman and others who recognized this as a unique idea that was bigger than any one story.

The result: Staffers on five continents collaborated over several months to execute the illuminating and alarming Sacred Rivers series,leveraging five formats to tell the winding tales of the Whanganui River in New Zealand,the Columbia in the U.S. Pacific Northwest,the Truful Truful and Pilmaiquen rivers in Chile,the Osun in Nigeria,the Bagmati in Nepal and Jordan’s eponymous river — the baptism site of Jesus. Some stories even carried a rare,coveted dateline: “ALONG THE [FEATURED] RIVER – .”

The lyrical stories,each with compelling images and presentation,engaged a range of audiences as they tackled the interplay of spirituality,religion,Indigenous culture,business practices,energy, environmental degradation — even geopolitical conflicts.

The sensitive portrayal of Indigenous groups’ core beliefs led members of these communities to express their gratitude for having their culture accurately and powerfully reflected in the news report. One local leader said the Columbia River story was the first time a news agency had featured Pacific Northwest “river circles,” their ancient religion’s connection to the river,raising hopes for community events inspired by the series.

The project resonated with AP’s audience and customers worldwide,both in reach and remarkable engagement. The stories in the six-part series each averaged more than 45,000 pageviews and usage by about 260 media outlets each across a broad range of markets from broadcast networks to international publications. Led by the Jordan River piece,several of the stories scored near the top for AP reader engagement,while the four videos in the series were seen by a global audience,from the Seoul Broadcasting System to France Media Monde to Weather Channel Group, among many others.

The on-the-ground teams that produced the all-formats content included:

— Nick Perry and freelancer Brett Phibbs in New Zealand

— Deepa Bharath and Jessie Wardarski in the Pacific Northwest

— Binaj Gurubacharya,Niranjan Shrestha and Upendra Mansingh in Nepal

— Mariam Fam,Oded Bilalty,Omar Akour and Nebi Qena in Jordan

— Chinedu Asadu, Sunday Alamba and Lekan Oyekanmi in Nigeria

— Giovanna Dell’Orto and Rodrigo Abd in Chile

Enric Marti,Maye-E Wong and Patrick Sison provided key photo editing and support,while Henao,Meyer,Crary and Peter Orsi were crucial to the text editing and planning. Also contributing were Chris Hulme for video,Samantha Shotzbarger for digital presentation,Justin Myers and Larry Fenn for interactive maps and Ron Vample for audio. Engagement managers Ashlee Schuppius and Gerry Kiernan,and the digital team’s Elise Ryan and Ed Medeles, ensured the project’s social promotion and audience reach; a panel discussion hosted by AP on Twitter Spaces drew 26,000 views.

For an enterprising,inspiring and unmatched creative collaboration that showcased AP journalism at its best, the Sacred Rivers project team is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

Visit AP.org to request a trial subscription to AP’s video,photo and text services.

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