HomeWorld NewsWhy Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira risked their lives in the Amazon

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

On Wednesday, a suspect confessed to killing the men, with police following their instructions about human remains in the jungle. Investigations are continuing on the remains of the other body.

The couple, who were first reported missing on June 5, had received death threats before their departure, according to the Coordination of the indigenous organization, known as UNIVAJA. Each was familiar with the region’s often violent incursions by illegal miners, hunters, loggers and drug traffickers – but they were equally determined to expose how such activity plagues Brazil’s protected wilderness areas, endangers its peoples. indigenous peoples and accelerates deforestation.

Pereira, a 41-year-old father of three, has spent much of his life serving the country’s indigenous people since joining the Brazilian government’s indigenous agency (FUNAI) in 2010. He told CNN that the agency’s Uncontacted and Newly Contacted Indigenous Coordinating Office made a major expedition to contact uncontacted indigenous peoples under its direction in 2018, and participated in multiple operations to evict illegal miners from the lands. protected.

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

Phillips, 57, a highly respected British journalist who has lived in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, has covered environmental issues and the Amazon in the pages of the Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times and, primarily, the Guardian . Pereira was on leave from FUNAI amid a broader agency shakeup when he joined Phillips to help research a new book.

The planned book would be called “How to save the Amazon”.

In a video filmed in May in a village of Ashaninka, in the north-west of the state of Acre, and released by the Ashaninka association, Phillips can be heard explaining his approach: “I came here (.. .) to learn with you, about your culture, how you view the forest, how you live here, and how you deal with threats from invaders and gold diggers and everything else.”

Dom Phillips (C) talks to two indigenous men in Aldeia Maloca Papiú, Roraima State, Brazil in 2019.

A dangerous business

Home to thousands of natives and more than a dozen uncontacted groups, Brazil’s vast Javari Valley is a patchwork of rivers and dense forests that makes access very difficult. Criminal activity there often goes unnoticed or confronted only by native patrols, sometimes ending in bloody conflict.

In September 2019, indigenous affairs worker Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was murdered in the same area, according to the Brazilian prosecutor’s office. In a statement, a FUNAI labor group cited evidence that dos Santos’ killing was retaliation for his efforts to combat illegal commercial mining in the Javari Valley, Reuters reported at the time.

Across Brazil, resisting illegal activities in the Amazon can be deadly, as CNN has previously reported. Between 2009 and 2019, more than 300 people were killed in Brazil in land and resource conflicts in the Amazon, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), citing figures from the Catholic nonprofit Pastoral Land Commission.

Critics have accused President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration of emboldening criminal networks involved in illegal resource extraction. Since coming to power in 2019, Bolsonaro has weakened federal environmental agencies, demonized organizations working to preserve the rainforest, and rallied around economic growth on indigenous lands — arguing it’s for the good. to be indigenous groups – with calls to “develop, “colonize” and “integrate” the Amazon.
Candles flicker during a vigil for Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira.

Last year, Pereira lamented the deteriorated state of Brazil’s environmental protection agencies and indigenous peoples under President Bolsonaro. But he also saw a silver lining, telling CNN he believed the change would push the indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley to overcome historical divisions and form alliances to protect their common interests.

However, in another interview with CNN later that year, he was more circumspect about the dangers. Returning from a trip to the rainforest, feet and legs covered in mosquito bites, Pereira described a violent reaction by criminal groups to indigenous territorial patrols.

“[The patrols] took them by surprise, I think. They thought that since the government was pulling out of operations, they would get a free pass to the area,” Pereira said.

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

“Dom knew the risks of going to the Javari Valley, but he thought the story was important enough to take those risks,” Jonathan Watts, global environmental editor for the Guardian, told CNN.

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

On Wednesday, Jaime Matsés, another local indigenous leader from the Javari Valley, told CNN that he recently met with Pereira to discuss a potential new project to monitor illegal activities in his community’s territory.

“He looked happy,” recalls Matsés. “He wasn’t afraid to do the right thing. We saw him as a warrior like us.”

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

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

Julia Koch contributed reporting.

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