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June 21, 2022
British Journalist, Dom Phillips, and Brazilian indigenist and advocate, Bruno Araújo Pereira, have been confirmed dead this week and join the ranks of the scores of environmental activists killed in Brazil over the last decade.
Vale do Javari, or Javari Valley as it is known in English, is one of the biggest Indigenous territories in Brazil and does not permit entry to those outside of the Indigenous community- a rule backed up by the government who check on the Vale do Javari people only by air and do not make contact with them unless in a state of emergency. The valley is named after the Javari river, the most important of the rivers in the region which splits the border of Brazil and Peru. Around 6,000 Indigenous Brazilians belonging to various groups reside in the valley, which spans approximately 85,444.82km 2. Many isolated groups inhabit Vale do Javari and it was these people and their land that Dom Phillips was interested in.
Phillips had lived in Brazil with his wife since 2007 and was fluent in Portuguese. Although he covered a broad range of subjects in his writing, especially pertaining to politics and poverty in Brazil as well as the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, he was researching and authoring a book on the Indigenous groups living in the Amazon and the impact deforestation was having on their land. Phillips contributed an article to the Guardian in February 2020 about his investigation of JBS Foods and their involvement in illegal deforestation of the Amazon titled: "Meat company faces heat over ‘cattle laundering’ in Amazon supply chain."
Known for their work, Phillips, along with Bruno Araújo Pereira, who was an expert in indigenous peoples, had been invited along on an expedition by the Javari Valley indigenous association once before- an invite that is seldom, if ever, extended to outsiders.
In his own words, Dom Phillips described his companion, Pereira, in an article as: “an “indigenista,” a specialist in recently contacted and isolated Indigenous people whose job for Funai, as the agency is known, includes monitoring these groups in the Javari Valley, a remote reserve the size of Austria. He also leads gruelling expeditions like this one – a 17-day journey by boat and on foot into thick Amazon jungle – which also demands a strong stomach. Pereira plays down the difficulties he and other indigenistas face in their work. But he admits a conservative government, influenced by an agribusiness lobby with its eyes on Indigenous land, is depriving Funai of resources and making things harder. “It’s not about us,” says the burly, bespectacled 38-year-old. “The Indigenous are the heroes.”
The pair had been missing since June 5, 2022, and were last seen on their boat on the Itaquai River. Members of the Indigenous community had spotted the pair that day and noticed that a boat was following them. The search effort to find the missing men was initiated by Indigenous groups in the area.
Atalaia do Norte State Police have informed media outlets that they currently have five suspects under investigation- two of whom are brothers.
Forty-one-year-old Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, or Pelado, as he is informally known, confessed to killing Phillips and Pereira. Pelado's brother, Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, 41, also a fishermen, was arrested and considered the main suspect in the killings. Although he did not confess initially, police purportedly had evidence against him. Indigenous peoples searching for the missing men also recognized Pelado as the man who held them at rifle point on June 4, putting him in the area and armed around the time Phillips and Pereira went missing. Blood was also found in Pelado’s boat.
It has been speculated that the motive for the murders may be connected to illegal fishing in the region- an activity that is often linked with drug trafficking and organised crime. Phillip’s family are concerned that the murders may involve individuals in more powerful positions, but this has not been confirmed and the local police do not believe the suspects they have detained so far are involved with any criminal gang. The Indigenous peoples who were in contact with the victims believe differently, and pointed out the rise in criminal activity due to the remoteness of the area and absence of government presence. Although locals have reported these crimes over the years, drug trafficking, illegal fishing of native fish, logging and mining continue to occur and when gangs cross paths it usually ends in bloodshed.
According to federal investigator, Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, the bodies were buried almost 2miles into the dense forest and would not have been located without a confession. It took over two hours to find the gravesite, an hour and forty five minutes of which were spent on the river.
Authorities were led by Pelado, who confessed to the murders, to a grave deep in the remote Vale do Javari of western Brazil, where they discovered the remains of the missing men. In the lead up to locating the bodies they had found belongings such as laptops and identifying documents.
Autopsy revealed that both men had been shot to death; Phillips had been shot once in the abdomen and Pereira had been shot in both the head and abdomen.
According to the Guardian, Dom Phillips had a run-in with President Jair Bolsonaro in 2019, in an exchange that was filmed and ended up circulating online in Brazil, garnering the journalist some negative attention. He enquired about deforestation to which Bolsonaro responded: "First, you have to understand that the Amazon belongs to Brazil, not you."
Bolsonaro, who is for the commercial development that heavily contributes to the issue of deforestation of the natural land, would carry his grudge even after Phillips' body was identified, saying: “That Englishman was disliked in the region. He should have more than redoubled the precautions he was taking- and he decided to go on an excursion instead,”- a statement which is untrue considering Phillips and Pereira’s connection to the locals they had been working alongside.
Dom Phillips is described by those who knew him as “one of the most ethical and courageous journalists.”
January 17, 2023