The writer and the activist: how Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira bonded over the Amazon

The two men spent years traveling together in canoes and on foot. They disappeared on what was supposed to be a final trip

It was supposed to be one of Dom Phillips’s last trips to the Amazon, the kicker for a book that would reveal all the lush complexity of the world’s largest rainforest.

Instead, it seems to have been a final chapter for both Phillips and his friend Bruno Pereira, an expert on Indigenous people and guide.

The pair were last seen on 5 June, heading by boat up the brown waters of the Itaquaí in the western Amazon. They never arrived at their final destination.

Phillips was a 57-year-old journalist from Merseyside in the UK, Pereira the 41-year-old father of a two-year-old and a three-year-old from Brazil’s north-east. They bonded over a shared love of the Amazon, that epic expanse of green that dominates much of western and northern Brazil.

For almost two years, they travelled together, with Pereira accompanying Phillips on his reporting trips. Phillips was writing a book about sustainable development in the rainforest and the younger man was an eager companion.

Pereira believed in Phillips’ project and opened doors to the jungle and its people.

On a series of trips over the last four years, they hunkered together in canoes and strung their hammocks next to each other between ancient trees. They shared meals out of cans, nudged one another at the silent passing of a monkey or crocodile, and when one of them fell face first into the murky waters of a river or swamp, the other was there to haul him out.

For many people, the insects, the rain, the days without showers or proper food, would be hell. For Phillips, it was heaven. He saw the wonder in the wet.

“He had a deep love, a respect, a fascination and a need to understand [the Amazon’s] complexity,” his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, told O Globo.

It could not have been further from his previous life. A former style columnist for the Independent on Sunday and one-time editor of the music magazine Mixmag, Phillips pitched up in Brazil in 2007 to find some peace in which to finish writing a book on rave culture.

But after clicking “send” on the manuscript of Superstar DJs Here We Go!, he never returned to the UK. Brazil had got a grip on him, and before long he had carved out a new career as a respected foreign correspondent.

Much of his work was for the Guardian and the Washington Post, but when interest in Brazil waned at the end of the 2010s, he turned his hand to one of his true loves: the environment.

Phillips had always been an outdoors man, a keen hiker and paddleboarder, whose taut and wiry physique belied his 57 years. He loved the jungle and wanted to make his mark with another book.

He chose to focus on Amazonian development and study – which projects work over the long term and which make the rainforest and the people who live there poorer.

“He said I want to be a neutral there, I want to hear what people have to say,” said Sampaio. “He interviewed a miner, he spoke to river people, to Indigenous people, to environmentalists. His proposal was giving voices to those voices that are not heard.”

In Pereira, he found someone who had been listening to those voices for years.

The pair bonded during a 2018 expedition to the region, when Pereira worked for Funai, the Brazilian government’s Indigenous foundation. In an article on the journey, Phillips described how the team travelled 600 miles (950km) by boat and hiked more than 40 miles.

He described Pereira, “wearing just shorts and flip-flops as he squats in the mud …cracks open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats its brains for breakfast as he discusses policy”.

Funai is charged with protecting Brazil’s estimated 235 indigenous tribes, many of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world.

For decades, the task was to ensure those people remained isolated, sheltered from the diseases, threats and burdens of outside society.

The land they occupy, however, is coveted by loggers, hunters, miners and fishermen, and it is valuable to the drug and animal traffickers who see its remote waterways and hidden paths as ways to move product.

As the head of Funai’s division for isolated Indigenous peoples, Pereira helped turn such areas into protected reservations where residents felt safer.

But the job got much harder in 2019, when Jair Bolsonaro took over as Brazil’s president. The far-right former army captain never hid his disdain for Indigenous people – he once said it was a pity the Brazilian cavalry was not as efficient as their genocidal American counterparts.

Bolsonaro’s support for miners and farmers in the region was the antithesis of everything Pereira stood for. When his team destroyed an illegal mining base on a Yanomami reservation in September 2019, it was the last straw for the pro-commerce camp, he said. He was forced out.

Not to be defeated, Pereira found a new calling soon after, working with Univaja, an Indigenous rights organisation in the area near Brazil’s border with Peru. It was there he went missing last week.


Andrew Downie in São Paulo and Tom Phillips in Atalaia do Norte

The GuardianTramp

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