When Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira went missing in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest earlier this month, there were immediate concerns that something sinister was afoot.
Phillips, a fifty-seven-year-old British journalist, was an experienced freelance writer who had frequently written about Brazil for the Guardian and the Washington Post. He was preparing a book on conservation efforts in the Amazon, a place he had covered extensively over the years. His travel companion was even more familiar with the region. A longtime employee of FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), the government entity tasked with overseeing relations between the Brazilian state and indigenous peoples, Pereira was a dogged advocate for the interests of natives deep in the rainforest.
On Wednesday, authorities announced that a suspect in custody, a local fisherman, had confessed to murdering Phillips and Pereira and burying their bodies in the jungle. The suspect led officials to the remains of both men. An intense search involving both armed forces and local brigades of indigenous volunteers thus confirmed the worst fears of everyone concerned about Phillips’s and Pereira’s safety.
Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang
The murder of Phillips and Pereira is part of a longer history of violence against those who oppose the rapacious exploitation of the Amazon. The most prominent victims in this regard are Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang.
Mendes was killed in 1988 by a lone shotgun blast outside his humble home in a remote Amazonian town three days before Christmas. A committed member of the leftist Workers’ Party in its early, most militant years, Mendes had achieved international prominence leading unionization efforts among rubber tappers and Brazil nut harvesters. He vigorously defended the rights of ordinary residents to make a living for themselves and their families in the face of ongoing efforts by major cattle ranchers to turn the rainforest into vast pastures, a process that has largely proceeded apace.
Mendes’s legacy is rooted in the collective organization of working people far from Brazil’s national centers of power. As James Brooke wrote in the New York Times in 1990, when “130 ranchers expelled an estimated 100,000 tappers from the forest, Mendes fought back, rallying families to stand in front of chain saws and bulldozers. In death, Mendes, an international eco-martyr, became the catalyst for popularizing the concept that the wealth of the Amazon resides in its profusion of plant and animal life, not in its thin, sandy soil.”
The fact that Mendes was well-known before his death meant that his murder garnered significant international attention (there was even a film made about his life starring Raul Julia). But powerful forces looking to profit from the Amazon have felled untold numbers of Brazilians whose names never made international headlines.
Dorothy Stang, a nun from Dayton, Ohio, was seventy-three when she was shot six times in 2005 in the the Brazilian state of Pará. Stang worked closely with the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra), an entity founded by Brazilian Catholic clergy in 1975 — the height of a brutal military dictatorship — to defend workers primarily in the Amazon laboring under conditions analogous to slavery.
When two men approached her at a farmers’ meeting in February 2005, according to an eyewitness, Stang read to them from scripture. “When asked if she was armed,” Folha de São Paulo reported, “she displayed the Bible and said it was her ‘only weapon.’” Shortly after, one of the men took a step back and opened fire.
The Role of Bolsonaro
The tragic deaths of Phillips and Pereira, then, are not unprecedented. But it is impossible to consider their murders apart from the calamitous presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right figure who won power in 2018. From the earliest reports that Phillips and Pereira had gone missing, Bolsonaro couched his dutiful lamentations in a condemnation of their supposed recklessness. “Really, just two people in a boat, in a region like that, completely wild, is an adventure that is not recommended for anyone. Anything can happen,” he said in a press conference last week.
Bolsonaro’s blasé comments triggered outraged responses from observers. Pedro Vaca, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, asserted: “Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira are not to blame for the violence they suffered in their journalistic and human rights work. Accountability for state efforts on the subject must be respectful and avoid re-victimization.” The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism called for an emergency meeting with the president to discuss rescue efforts after the federal government appeared to be dragging its feet.
And rightly so. The government conspicuously delayed its efforts to find both men, who went missing in a region where life and death can hang in the balance after mere hours. After the Federal Police — Brazil’s equivalent of the FBI — acknowledged that it was aware of Phillips and Pereira’s disappearance, the army released an awkward public statement stating that it would not be joining the search until it had received orders to do so from Brasília.
Why such orders stalled hasn’t yet been explained. The grim bigger picture, however, is that the current administration is intensely hostile to those who put themselves at risk to protect what is left of the world’s largest rainforest. Bolsonaro implicitly criticized Phillips, saying his reporting on illegal mining and other illicit activities in the Amazon had made him an unwelcome figure in the region. Pereira had previously been terminated from his government position by former justice minister Sergio Moro, the disgraced former judge who oversaw the conviction of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva only to join the administration of Lula’s main electoral rival.
We will never know if Phillips and Pereira might have avoided their grim fates, about which much is still unknown, under a different administration. But it is certain that their deaths occurred under the most hostile government in at least fifty years for those reporting on and those resisting environmental degradation. And it is certain that such deaths will continue if they go unchallenged.
A renewed Brazilian left that takes seriously the need for a new environmental agenda — one that decarbonizes Petrobras, the national oil company, and cracks down on bad actors in remote regions of the Amazon — should draw upon the righteous anger aroused by this heartbreaking event.
The day after the deaths of Phillips and Pereira were officially confirmed, David Biller, the Brazil news director for the Associated Press, shared some of the final text messages he exchanged with Phillips. “There’s actually not that much of the Amazon that is untouched,” Phillips wrote. He added: “The Amazon is much less protected and pristine than most people think it is and much more threatened than people realize.”
May his and his colleague’s murders inspire the outrage necessary to prevent similar violence in the future.