From the moment Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira disappeared on June 5 in the Brazilian Amazon, there were suspicions of foul play. Phillips was a British freelance journalist dedicated to environmental issues, and Pereira, his friend and guide, was a prominent Brazilian expert on indigenous affairs. He was helping Phillips research a book, tentatively titled “How to Save the Amazon.” After spending a few days in and around the vast Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve, near Brazil’s westernmost Amazon border with Peru and Colombia, the two men set off by boat from a small riverside village for the larger city of Atalaia do Norte, two hours away. They never arrived. Their satellite phone had lost the signal.
Rumors quickly swirled that Pereira had been the target of recent death threats and that in the days before the men disappeared they had been involved in a confrontation with gunmen who were fishing illegally in the reserve. Phillips and Pereira had spent time with an Indigenous Home Defense group that Pereira was apparently helping to organize; the group seeks to document and thwart the illegal activities of a growing influx of intruders, including fishermen, loggers and gold diggers. The Javari is home to some of the last uncontacted indigenous tribes in the world, which gives it its unique character. This is permanently protected indigenous land. A government agency known as Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) enforces this protection; he may also request assistance from the federal police and other agencies. FUNAI is responsible for safeguarding the twenty-eight confirmed isolated Amazonian tribes and their constitutionally protected reservations; Pereira had headed his department of uncontacted and recently contacted Indians. (In all, there are more than two hundred tribes in Brazil.)
But, like many Amazon reserves, the Javari is increasingly overrun. The area where Phillips and Pereira disappeared is just outside the perimeter boundaries of Javari, where there are several riverside communities of settlers who never fully accepted the creation of indigenous territory and who under President Jair Bolsonaro , have become more brazen by transgressing its borders. . Some of them live off illegal logging, hunting and fishing inside the reserve. It is not far from the main thoroughfare of the Amazon River, so it is also favored by cocaine smugglers from neighboring coca-producing countries of Colombia and Peru, a trade that has spawned a powerful criminal subculture. .
The Javari, in other words, is a dangerous place. But Phillips and Pereira were no neophytes. Pereira had worked in the area for years and had local contacts, so there was initially a hope that perhaps their boat’s engine had just failed and they had drifted downstream, or had simply somehow lost. However, neither possibility seemed likely, and the indigenous people Pereira was working with immediately began looking for them. While there was still no news the following day, journalists, relatives and colleagues of the two men began to demand that the Brazilian government launch a search.
Phillips, who reported regularly for the Guardian, was a lanky and amiable man, married to a Brazilian, Alessandra Sampaio. Last year they moved to Salvador, his hometown. I had met him at the end of 2018, in Brasilia, during a report on Bolsonaro, the far-right politician who had just won the presidential election. Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 and immediately began rolling back legal protections for indigenous Amazon reserves and conservation areas, which had been in place since Brazil’s constitution was adopted in 1988. Instead, he advocated opening up the reserves to outside interests. commercial mining, logging and agribusiness, while ignoring concerns about environmental damage. He appointed a foreign minister who called climate change a hoax dreamed up by Marxists.