Why Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira risked their lives on the Amazon

On Wednesday, the suspect confessed to killing the men, and police followed their lead in searching for human remains in the jungle. A third suspect, who was on the run, turned himself in at the Atalaia do Norte police station on Saturday, Brazil’s federal police told CNN. At least five suspects are under investigation in the disappearance of Pereira and Phillips, a police spokesman said.

Research on the remains of the other body is ongoing.

The couple, who were first reported missing on June 5, received death threats before leaving, according to the Indigenous Coordinating Organization known as UNIVAJA. Each was well aware of the often violent incursions into the area by illegal miners, hunters, lumberjacks and drug dealers, but they were equally dedicated to exposing how such activities damage Brazil’s protected wilderness areas and endanger its indigenous peoples. and accelerates deforestation.

Pereira, a 41-year-old father of three, has spent most of his life in the service of the country’s indigenous peoples since joining the Brazilian government agency for indigenous affairs (FUNAI) in 2010. under his leadership, in 2018 he made a major expedition to make contact with isolated indigenous peoples and that he was involved in several operations to drive illegal miners from protected lands.

Protecting the Amazon is a dangerous undertaking.  Critics say Bolsonaro is making things worse

Pereira’s passion was evident in a CNN interview last year. “I can’t stay away from parentheses“, – he said, referring to the indigenous population of the region with the affectionate term “relatives”.

Phillips, 57, a widely respected British journalist based in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, has covered environmental issues and the Amazon for the Financial Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times and most notably The Guardian. Pereira was on leave from FUNAI due to a larger agency reshuffle when he joined Phillips to help with research for a new book.

The planned book will be titled How to Save the Amazon.

In a video filmed in May in the village of Ashaninka in northwest Acre and released by the Ashaninka Association, Phillips can be heard explaining his efforts: “I came here (…) to learn with you about your culture, about how you look at the forest, how you live here and how you deal with threats from invaders and gold diggers and everything else.”

Dom Phillips (center) speaks to two indigenous men in Aldeia Maloca Papiu, Roraima State, Brazil, 2019.

Dangerous enterprise

Home to thousands of indigenous people and more than a dozen non-contact groups, Brazil’s vast Javari Valley is a patchwork of rivers and dense forests that are difficult to access. Criminal activity there often goes unnoticed or is only confronted by local patrols, sometimes ending in bloody conflicts.

In September 2019, an indigenous worker, Maxiel Pereira dos Santos, was killed in the same area, according to Brazilian prosecutors. In a statement, union group FUNAI 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.

As CNN previously reported, in Brazil, confronting illegal activities in the Amazon can be deadly. Between 2009 and 2019, more than 300 people were killed in Brazil as a result of land and resource conflicts in the Amazon, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), citing data from the non-profit Catholic Pastoral Land Commission.

Critics have accused the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro of encouraging criminal networks involved in the illegal extraction of resources. Since Bolsonaro came to power in 2019 weakened federal environmental agencies, demonized organizations working to preserve the rainforest, and advocated for economic growth on First Nations lands, claiming it was for the own well-being of First Nations groups, urging “develop”, “colonize” and “integrate” Amazon.
Candles flicker in memory of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira.

Last year, Pereira deplored the deterioration of Brazil’s environmental and indigenous protection agencies under President Bolsonaro. But he also saw a bright side, telling CNN that he believes the shift will push the indigenous peoples of the Jawari Valley to overcome historical divisions and build alliances to protect their common interests.

However, in another CNN interview later that year, he was more circumspect about the dangers. Having just returned from a trip through the rainforest, his feet and legs covered in mosquito bites, Pereira described the backlash from criminal groups against local territorial patrols.

“[The patrols] took them by surprise, I think. They thought that since the government was out of operations, they would have free access to the region,” Pereira said.

But neither Pereira nor Phillips were going to give a “free pass” to the operation of the Amazon.

“Dom was aware of the risks involved in going to Jawari Valley, but he thought the story was important enough to take that risk,” Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s global environmental editor, told CNN.

“We knew it was a dangerous place, but Dom believes it is possible to protect nature and the livelihoods of the indigenous people,” his sister Sian Phillips said in a video last week, urging the Bolsonaro government to step up the search for the steam.

On Wednesday, Jaime Matses, another local indigenous leader in the Zhavari Valley, told CNN that he had recently met with Pereira to discuss a potential new project to monitor illegal activity in his community.

“He seemed happy,” Matses recalled. “He was not afraid to do the right thing. We saw in him a warrior just like us.”

And if their disappearance was intended to spread fear among those who would follow in their footsteps, it backfired, Cora Kamanari, another local leader, told CNN Wednesday.

“We are more united than before and will continue to fight until the last native is killed.”

Julia Koch contributed reporting.