Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira will not be forgotten, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has vowed, blaming their killings a year ago on the Amazonian “anarchy” unleashed under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
Phillips, a British journalist, and Pereira, a Brazilian Indigenous expert, were shot dead by a group of illegal fishers on 5 June last year while travelling in the remote Javari valley near Brazil’s border with Colombia and Peru.
To celebrate their lives and work, the Guardian is one of 16 media groups launching the Bruno and Dom project, a collaborative investigation coordinated by the Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories.
In a statement to the Guardian marking the launch of the project on Thursday, Lula said the killings “were one of the results of the encouragement of anarchy and environment crime and illegal mining in the Amazon”.
During Bolsonaro’s environmentally catastrophic 2019-23 far-right administration, illegal deforestation soared and invasions of protected Indigenous lands rose sharply as a result of his inflammatory rhetoric and the dismantling of Brazil’s environmental and Indigenous protection agencies, Ibama and Funai.
Last month, federal police charged Bolsonaro’s former Funai chief Marcelo Xavier in connection with the deaths of Pereira and Phillips on the basis that he had been warned of possible bloodshed in the Javari valley and failed to act. Xavier has tweeted critically about the decision to charge.
Since taking office in January, Lula has vowed to initiate a new era of Amazon protection, although the massive challenges he faces were exposed on Tuesday when conservative members of congress approved legislation that activists fear will strike a devastating blow to Indigenous communities and isolated tribes.
The new government has deployed environmental special forces to the Yanomami Indigenous territory to expel tens of thousands of illegal gold and cassiterite miners, and sent federal police to Atalaia do Norte, the river town to which Phillips and Pereira were travelling when they were killed.
“In the name of a sovereign Brazil, the planet, and the legacy and memory of Dom and Bruno, we are fighting to revive policies to protect Indigenous peoples and the Amazon rainforest, in the Javari valley where they died and in the whole region,” Lula’s statement said.
“We will not abandon this struggle for the planet, nor will we forget Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira,” he said, promising an independent investigation into their killings “so that those responsible can be punished”.
Three men are in detention awaiting a judge’s decision on whether they will face a jury trial, while a fourth has been named as the alleged mastermind.
Lula criticised the way Bolsonaro’s “denialist” government responded to the killings, providing “neither safety, condolences, respect, nor the guarantee of an independent investigation into this terrible crime”.
In the days after the two men disappeared on the Itaquaí River, Bolsonaro accused Pereira and Phillips of embarking on “an ill-advised adventure” into the rainforest. Members of Bolsonaro’s administration falsely accused the victims of entering Indigenous lands without permission.
Indigenous leaders in the Javari say the new government’s efforts have brought a measure of safety to a remote region blighted by environmental crime, drug trafficking and piracy.
Bushe Matis, the new president of Univaja, the Indigenous NGO that Pereira was working for when he was killed, said: “Lula’s election made us happy … We’re grateful the government has taken some action, but things are still not 100%.”
Matis said illegal fishing, poaching and mining gangs continued to pillage the forests and rivers of the Javari valley Indigenous territory, the second largest in Brazil.
While those invasions continued, Matis said the Indigenous patrol teams that Pereira helped to create would continue their work fighting environmental criminals. “This dream isn’t dead. [Bruno] has died but we will fight on,” Matis said. “His spirit remains here with us.”
In a recent interview, Humberto Freire, the head of Lula’s newly created federal police department for the environment and the Amazon, called the killings “the tragic result of a process of weakening that took place in the last few years”.
“And it is our responsibility to turn things around,” Freire added. “If the last few years saw a weakening [of environmental and Indigenous protections] that culminated in that tragedy, we now want to do the opposite and strengthen them, so that in the near future [deforestation] rates can be reduced.”
Freire said federal police reinforcements had been sent to the Javari valley region as part of a long-term effort to control environmental and organised crime. “We are not going there temporarily,” he said.