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18 June 2022updated 28 Jul 2022 5:25pm

Brazil’s dangers for environmental defenders cost my friend Dom Phillips his life

The journalist was researching a book called How to Save the Amazon when he and a colleague were murdered.

By Phil Clarke Hill

Dom Phillips, a British journalist, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian indigenous rights defender, were murdered in the Javari valley in Brazil. They were researching for a book Dom was writing, “How to Save the Amazon”; he cared dearly for the rainforest.

I first met Dom in 2014 in Rio de Janeiro when I was researching a piece about the thriving favela music scene. I tracked him down after reading an article of his, about creativity in favelas and the positive impact of community-led tourism in places otherwise only stigmatised in the media. It is testament to his warm and open character that not only did he agree to meet up, but we went on to work together and become friends. He was one of a rare breed of journalists who push to get under-reported and overlooked stories published. He was the real deal, a proper journalist.

I had recently moved to Rio to work as a freelance photojournalist (and later video journalist), the beginning of a journey that would last for the next six years, to-ing and fro-ing between Rio and London more times than I care to remember. We had a strong community of correspondents, Brazilian journalists, photographers and filmmakers; a monthly meetup, affectionately named “Rio hacks’ happy hour”, was at its heart and Dom was one of its organisers. The lines blurred between our working relationships and friendships, bonds strengthened by a mutual understanding of the complexities, nuances, tensions and risks of reporting in Brazil.

My enduring memory of Dom is meeting up with him in the little pão de queijo (cheese bread) place in the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, where we both lived at the time. We would talk about ideas, along with some guiding, mentoring conversations that were integral to my understanding of the city and the country I’d just moved to. Dom truly cared: for people, for the craft, for Brazil, for the planet. It is devastating that this compassion and drive to tell the real story were also what took him from us before his time.

Dom and Bruno were killed in the Javari Valley, one of the most remote regions of the Amazon; their bodies were buried in the jungle, and only uncovered when one of the two men arrested for their murder led police to the location. Their murders have shocked all that hear of them, making headlines across the world. It wasn’t until talking to friends and colleagues outside of the Brazil reporting loop, however, that I realised how few people were aware of the danger and complexity of reporting in Amazonia.

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Logging, mining, poaching, drug trafficking and illegal fishing are just some of the industries operating under the cover of this vast expanse. It is believed that the suspects may have been involved in the latter of these activities.

[See also: Why reforesting the Amazon is no easy task]

This lawless land that makes up the largest intact rainforest in the world is a complicated place, with wildly differing interests at play. All too often they collide, with tragic consequences. Powerful owners of sawmills, farms, mines and slaughterhouses have deep connections to the local government, the police and any other official body you might care to think of. If you consider how sparsely populated these regions are, it should come as no surprise to hear that everyone knows each other, everyone knows what happens, but no one sees anything.

It is not to say everyone in Amazonia is corrupt, evil or unscrupulous, but the lure of power and money is strong, and there is almost always a cost to the environment. Anyone “getting in the way” is seen as a threat. Alongside the powerful latifundista (land owning, ruling class) who run the show, there is a far larger portion of society – those who live in desperate poverty. Desperation creates a readily available army to do the dirty work: the mining, the logging, the fishing, the poaching, the killing.

The people of Amazonia – those defending the forest and those reporting on and researching it – face very real threats. As someone who has reported from the region multiple times over the years, I had assumed these threats were common knowledge. I was wrong.

It is widely understood by those who report on the region that it is dangerous to do so, but the risk is often played down, both by clients sending freelancers there and those working there. It’s probably a means of staying motivated; if you thought too much about the risks, you wouldn’t go. It is also probably because the threat feels strangely subtle, under the surface but ever-present. It’s not rockets being fired on the front line between warring factions, or shootouts in the streets between gangs and police in the favelas of Rio. It is instead targeted violence in isolated places, very rarely with any witnesses or visibility.

I think back to the trips I’ve done in the region, among other stories meeting an indigenous guard not dissimilar to the one Dom and Bruno were on their way to meet. After my third and most recent trip I could not produce the piece, due to the grave danger the guard felt they were in after a member of the guard from a neighbouring tribe, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, was murdered only weeks before. They were not willing to participate in a film as they thought it would bring dangerous visibility to them; it would seem they were right.

[See also: Bolsonaro can’t end deforestation in the Amazon, even if he wants to]

Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmental defender. In 2019, the year Jair Bolsonaro took office as president, 31 defenders were killed in Brazil. None of these cases has yet led to a conviction. A huge proportion of these victims are indigenous people who take risks every day to defend their territories. They are the unsung heroes of the environmental movement.

Dom and Bruno were helping to bring light to the dangers that indigenous and traditional populations face – the incredible work they are doing, and have always done. They are the original stewards of the forest; they are the ones who truly understand its intricacies and nuances. The murders of Dom and Bruno are brutal, appalling and tragic, and have rocked the world. The only thing we can hope is that they did not die in vain. That is how we will choose to remember and honour them.

Fundraiser for the families of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira

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