Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira will not be forgotten, vows Brazil’s Lula

President says last year’s killings were result of ‘encouragement of anarchy’ in Amazon under Bolsonaro

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”.

What is the Bruno and Dom project?

Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian Indigenous expert and Dom Phillips, a British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor, were killed on the Amazon’s Itaquaí River last June while returning from a reporting trip to the remote Javari Valley region.

The attack prompted international outcry, and cast a spotlight on the growing threat to the Amazon posed by extractive industries, both legal and illegal, such as logging, poaching, mining and cattle ranching.

A year after their deaths, the Guardian has joined 15 other international news organisations in a collaborative investigation into organised crime and resource extraction in the Brazilian Amazon. The initiative has been coordinated by Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit whose mission is to continue the work of reporters who are threatened, censored or killed.

The goal of the project is to honour and pursue the work of Bruno and Dom, to foreground the importance of the Amazon and its people, and  to suggest possible ways to save the Amazon.

Who was Bruno Pereira?

Pereira, 41, was a former employee of the Indigenous agency Funai where he led efforts to protect the isolated and uncontacted tribes who live in the Brazilian Amazon. After being sidelined from his post soon after the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power, Pereira went to work with the Javari Valley Indigenous association Univaja, helping create Indigenous patrol teams to stop illegal poachers, miners and loggers invading their protected lands.

Who was Dom Phillips?

Phillips, 57, was a longtime contributor to the Guardian who had
lived in Brazil for 15 years. A former editor of the dance magazine Mixmag, he developed a deep interest in environmental issues, covering the link between logging, mining, the beef industry and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. His reporting brought him into contact with Pereira, and in 2018 the pair took part in a 17-day expedition deep into the Javari Valley. In 2021 he took a year off to start writing a book, titled How to Save the Amazon. His return to the Javari was to have been the last reporting trip for the project.

What is the Javari Valley?

Sitting on Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia, the Javari Valley
Indigenous Reservation is a Portugal-sized swathe of rainforest and
rivers which is home to about 6,000 Indigenous people from the Kanamari, Kulina, Korubo, Marubo, Matis, Mayoruna and Tsohom-dyapa groups, as well as 16 isolated groups.

It is also a hotspot for poachers, fishers and illegal loggers,
prompting violent conflicts between the Indigenous inhabitants and the
riverside communities which fiercely opposed the reservation’s
creation in 2001. Its strategic location makes it a key route for smuggling cocaine between Peru, Colombia and Brazil.

What happened to Pereira and Philips?

On 2 June 2022, Pereira and Phillips travelled up the Itaquaí River from the town of Atalaia do Norte to report on efforts to stop illegal fishing. Two days later, members of the Indigenous patrol team with whom Pereira and Phillips were travelling were threatened by an illegal fisher. Early on 5 June, the pair set out on the return leg before dawn, hoping to safely pass a river community that was home to several known poachers. 

They never arrived, and after a search by teams of local Indigenous activists, their remains were discovered on 15 June.

Three fishers are being held in high-security prisons awaiting trial for the killings: brothers Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and a third man, Jefferson da Silva Lima. 

Federal police have alleged that a fourth man, nicknamed Colombia, was the mastermind of the killings.

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 a​n 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.


Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

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