Fears are growing for the fates of Dom Phillips and Bruno Arajo Pereira, who have been missing for more than a week in the Brazilian Amazon, following the discovery of what appeared to be human remains and revelations that the pair had received death threats.
There has been no official explanation for their disappearance, but Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stated on Monday that he believes they were victims of “malice.” The case has drawn global attention to the dangers that journalists and environmental activists face in Brazil.
Phillips, a veteran journalist who has reported extensively about Brazil’s most marginalized groups and the devastation that criminal actors are wreaking on the Amazon, had traveled to the remote Javari Valley with indigenous affairs expert Pereira to research conservation efforts.
Despite being formally protected by the government, the wild Javari Valley, like other designated indigenous lands in Brazil, is plagued by illegal mining, logging, hunting, and international drug trafficking – all of which often result in violence as perpetrators clash with environmental defenders and indigenous rights activists.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), over 300 people were killed in Brazil between 2009 and 2019 as a result of land and resource conflicts in the Amazon, citing figures from the Pastoral Land Commission, a non-profit affiliated with the Catholic Church.
In addition, based on documented killings of environmental defenders, Global Witness ranked Brazil as the fourth most dangerous country for environmental activism in 2020. According to the report, nearly three-quarters of such attacks in Brazil occurred in the Amazon region.
The home of environmental and indigenous leader Alessandra Korap was reportedly raided by unknown attackers after she attended the COP26 climate talks in Scotland last November; another indigenous activist, Txai Suru, said she was threatened online and in person after her speech in Glasgow.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and actions have created a culture of impunity in Brazil.
Bolsonaro signed an environmental decree earlier this month that increases fines for deforestation, illegal logging, burning, fishing, and hunting, with the government calling it “an important step in environmental law.”
However, since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro’s administration has effectively weakened federal environmental agencies, demonized organizations working to preserve the rainforest, and rallied for economic growth on indigenous lands, claiming that it is for the benefit of indigenous groups.
His rhetoric, in particular, with calls to “develop,” “colonize,” and “integrate” the Amazon, has “effectively given a green light” to criminal networks involved in the illegal logging and mining trade, according to César Muoz, a senior Americas researcher at HRW and a specialist on indigenous environmental communities.
Moreover, while Bolsonaro’s administration has previously deployed the country’s military to defend the Amazon from illegal logging and land clearing, Munoz claims that the move ultimately sidelined staffers from the country’s environmental agency IBAMA, resulting in a loss of environmental expertise.
According to Roberto Liebgott, southern region coordinator of Brazil’s indigenous Missionary Council, a Catholic Church-affiliated indigenous rights advocacy group, cultural biases and stereotypes are at the root of criminal activity in the Amazon.
According to Liebgott, at least two narratives are fueling the violence: “The first is linked to the idea that indigenous people are not subject to rights like other humans, perpetuating the narrative of the ‘savage’ and, as such, can be assaulted, attacked, expelled or killed.”
The second, he claims, “is linked to the narrative that indigenous people do not need land and that everything is done for them.”
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has also been known to advance such stereotypes, with the president claiming in a 2020 video broadcast that indigenous Brazilians are still “evolving.” That same year, he described a long-held “dream” of opening indigenous reserves to mining.
In contrast, Phillips’ reporting focused on the threats posed to uncontacted indigenous groups by illegal mining and cattle ranchers, as well as indigenous peoples’ efforts to save their environment.
It’s one of the many reasons why his and Pereira’s work is so important, and why their disappearance is so heartbreaking, says Munoz.