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Two Murders in the Amazon

From the moment that Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira vanished, on June 5th, 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 Indigenous-affairs expert. He was assisting Phillips with research for 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 Amazonian border with Peru and Colombia, the two men set out by boat from a small riverside settlement for the larger town of Atalaia do Norte, two hours away. They never arrived. Their satellite phone had lost signal.

Rumors soon circulated that Pereira had been the target of recent death threats, and that, in the days before the men’s disappearance, they had been involved in a confrontation with armed men who were illegally fishing in the reserve. Phillips and Pereira had spent time with an Indigenous territorial-defense group that Pereira was apparently helping to organize; the group seeks to document and thwart illegal activities of a growing influx of intruders, including fishermen, loggers, and gold prospectors. The Javari is home to some of the world’s last uncontacted Indigenous tribes, which is what gives it its uniqueness. It is a permanently protected Indigenous land. A government agency known as Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) enforces that protection; it can also enlist the aid of the Federal Police and other agencies. FUNAI is responsible for safeguarding the twenty-eight confirmed uncontacted Amazonian tribes and their constitutionally protected reservations; Pereira had headed its Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians. (In all, there are more than two hundred tribes in Brazil.)

But, like many Amazonian reserves, the Javari is increasingly overrun. The area where Phillips and Pereira disappeared is just outside the Javari’s perimeter boundary, where there are several riverside communities of settlers who have never fully accepted the creation of the Indigenous territory and who, under President Jair Bolsonaro, have become more brazen in transgressing its boundaries. Some of them subsist on illegally logging, hunting, and fishing inside the reserve. It is not far from the main artery of the Amazon River, so it is also favored by cocaine traffickers from the coca-growing neighboring countries of Colombia and Peru, a trade that has brought about a potent criminal subculture.

The Javari, in other words, is a dangerous place. But Phillips and Pereira were not neophytes. Pereira had worked in the area for years, and had local contacts, so there was initially some hope that perhaps their boat’s engine had just broken down and they had drifted downriver, or had just somehow got lost. Neither possibility seemed likely, though, and the Indigenous people that Pereira had been working with began looking for them immediately. When there was still no word the next day, journalists, relatives, and colleagues of the two men began demanding that the Brazilian government launch a search.

Phillips, who reported regularly for the Guardian, was a lanky, personable man, married to a Brazilian woman, Alessandra Sampaio. Last year, they moved to Salvador, her home town. I had met him in late 2018, in Brasilia, while reporting on Bolsonaro, the far-right politician who had just won the Presidential election. Bolsonaro took office in January, 2019, and immediately began rescinding the legal protections for Indigenous Amazonian reserves and conservation areas, which had been in place since the adoption of Brazil’s constitution, in 1988. Instead, he advocated opening up the reserves to outside interests—commercial mining, logging and agribusiness—while shrugging off concerns about environmental damage. He appointed a foreign minister who called climate change a hoax dreamed up by Marxists.

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