Concerns are growing over the fate of Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira, who were first reported missing in the remote Javari Valley, in the far western state of Amazonas, on Sunday. They had reportedly received death threats a few days prior.
Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, posted a video on Tuesday imploring the federal government to step up its search operations, saying: “We still have a little hope that we will find them.”
“Even if they don’t find the love of my life alive, they need to be found, please,” she said.
Phillips is an Amazon specialist and a longtime contributor to the British newspaper The Guardian. He traveled to the region with Pereira, an employee of the National Fund for Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (FUNAI) who is on vacation to do research for a conservation book project.
On Sunday, the men were to make a two-hour drive to Atalaya do Norte, which borders the valley and Peru. According to the Coordinating Organization of Indigenous Peoples (UNIVAJA), they never arrived.
According to UNIVAJA, Phillips and Pereira received death threats a week before they disappeared.
Although under government protection, the Javari Valley is considered lawless, with repeated incursions by land robbers, illegal miners, illegal hunters, and illegal fishermen. This can be a hostile environment for journalists and indigenous rights activists.
“In this region, violence is spreading in an increasingly uncontrolled manner in the context of the encroachment on the lands of indigenous peoples and lands belonging to the state, the suppression of press freedom and the work of journalists,” UNIVAJA said in a statement.
Illegal activities in the Javari Valley
Antenor Vaz, a consultant to the isolated indigenous group Earth Is Life, accuses the Bolsonaro administration of cutting funding to FUNAI, the Brazilian federal government’s indigenous affairs agency, for facilitating illegal activities in the protected area.
“In (2019), the illegal activities of drug dealers and gold diggers have increased staggeringly. This happened when international drug trafficking partnered with illegal mining and logging,” said Vaz, who previously worked for FUNAI in the Javari Valley.
In September 2019, an indigenous worker, Maxiel Pereira dos Santos, was killed in the same area, according to Brazilian prosecutors. In a statement, a union group representing FUNAI workers cited evidence that the killing of dos Santos was in retaliation for his efforts to crack down on illegal commercial mining in the Javari Valley, Reuters reported at the time.
In 2018, President Jair Bolsonaro campaigned to open indigenous territories to economic activities such as mining and agriculture. Since he has been in power, he has fulfilled this promise, including effectively weakening FUNAI’s power by transferring its jurisdiction from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Commenting on the disappearance on Tuesday, Bolsonaro appeared to question the decision to travel to an isolated area.
“Two people on a boat alone, in such a region, completely wild. This is not a recommended adventure. Anything could happen, it could be an accident, maybe they were executed, anything could happen,” Bolsonaro said. .
“We hope and pray to God that they are found soon,” he said, adding that the military is working “very hard.”
“Escalation of Violence”
Late Monday evening, the search and rescue operation began after a delay due to a bureaucratic process earlier in the day.
The Amazon military command said they deployed a group of military combatants in the jungle and a speedboat to search along with the navy, who were seen in images released Tuesday morning.
The Amazonas Department of State Security said they sent reinforcements to Jawari Valley on Tuesday, including divers, jungle experts, firefighters, detectives, military police and environmental police.
Pereira’s partner, Beatriz, and his two brothers, Max and Felipe, called for more search operations, saying on Tuesday that “the safety of indigenous peoples and search parties must also be guaranteed.”
Phillips’ sister, Sian Phillips, said in the video that her brother “loves the country and cares deeply for the Amazon and its people.”
“We knew it was a dangerous place, but the House believes it is possible to protect nature and the livelihoods of the indigenous people,” she said.
Juliana Koch of CNN contributed to the story.