Dom Phillips obituary

Brazil-based UK journalist and author who championed the role of Indigenous people in saving the Amazon

In recent years the journalist Dom Phillips, who was killed aged 57 during a reporting trip to the Amazon, had become convinced that Indigenous communities played an essential role in protecting the rainforest and stabilising the climate.

It was for this reason that he accompanied Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian expert on uncontacted tribes, into the Javari valley, to observe how territory is demarcated and protected against predatory intrusions by illegal loggers, miners, fishermen and drug traffickers – threats that had grown more intense during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. The two men were ambushed on their boat journey home and executed in the forest, prompting demands for greater protection of environmental defenders and the journalists who report on them.

Dom, a versatile freelance correspondent with a passion for social justice, had been writing ever deeper stories about Brazil, his adopted home of 15 years, in a wide range of outlets, including the Washington Post, the Times, the Financial Times, the energy newswire Platts, the football magazine FourFourTwo and, most frequently in recent years, the Guardian.

He first visited Brazil in 1998 to write about its music scene, and returned for an extended stay in 2007 to finish a book about electronic music. His parents had died within months of each other earlier in the decade and his marriage to his first wife, Nuala, had ended in divorce, so he was grateful to Brazil for the chance to make a fresh start. For all its problems of inequality and violence, which he frequently covered, he never lost his appreciation of the country’s natural beauty and spirit of alegria.

Born in Bebington, Merseyside, Dom (Dominic) was the first child of Gillian (nee Watson), who was Welsh and went on to be a schoolteacher, and Bernard Phillips, an accountant of Irish roots who later lectured at Liverpool Polytechnic, now Liverpool John Moores University. His twin siblings, Sian and Gareth, were born just over a year later.

Asthma curtailed any ambitions that Dom may have had to play for his local football team, Everton, but he shared his family’s interest in outdoor activities – holidays were spent in a camper van in a muddy field in north Wales or Scotland – and music. Everyone in the family had a guitar. Dom also had a good voice and, during his teenage years, formed a series of bands with his brother and friends, practising in the attic and once performing at Brady’s, in Liverpool. When he busked his way around Greece one summer, he played bluegrass guitar, and he liked to perform the folk song New River Train.

After winning a scholarship to St Anselm’s college, Birkenhead, he showed a talent for writing, but would sometimes be strapped by the Christian Brothers running the Catholic school for speaking out of turn.

In his preteens, he had written a play about a treasure island that was performed by the local dramatic society. At Hull University, he studied literature in a combined degree, but was growing tired of academia.

A few months later, he switched to a course at Middlesex Polytechnic (now University), but gave that up to travel around the Mediterranean. He then moved to Liverpool, where he started a music fanzine, named The Subterranean, after Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans, with a friend who worked for the civil service and had access to a printer. In 1988, he started another fanzine, New City Press, in Bristol and within a few years became a reporter and then editor of Mixmag, the bible for the house and dance music generation.

He ran the magazine for much of the 90s, quietly promoting his conviction that the best venues were in the north of England. Interviews with Björk and the DJs Sasha, Pete Tong and Fatboy Slim led to a surge in readership. Dom later wrote up the rise and fall of the chemically fuelled rave scene with characteristic wit in the book Superstar DJs Here We Go! (2009), which he completed in São Paulo.

In Brazilian culture, he found a more natural expression of joy, immersing himself in it from the outset and quickly mastering Portuguese, visiting art exhibitions and baile-funk clubs, and becoming a fan of Corinthians football club. By 2012, when he moved to Rio de Janeiro along with a flock of foreign correspondents, including me, to cover preparations for the World Cup and Olympics, Dom already seemed an old Brazil hand. Generous with his knowledge, he became a respected member of monthly “hacks’ happy hours”. He was in his element, writing about protests, favela pacification – reducing the degree of conflict between drug traffickers and police – and political corruption during the week, while hiking in the nearby mountains, cycling up Corcovado or standup paddleboarding off Copacabana beach at the weekend.

In 2013 he met Alê (Alessandra) Sampaio at a party near his home in Santa Teresa, a bohemian district of Rio de Janeiro. They married two years later.

As Dom started writing more frequently for the Guardian, he developed an interest in environmental issues. He covered dam disasters at two iron ore mines – Mariana in 2015 and Brumadinho in 2019 – the climate crisis and, increasingly, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

In 2018, he made his first trip to the Javari valley with Bruno to see how Indigenous communities protect their land. It was a transformative experience, coinciding as it did with the election of Bolsonaro, who encouraged land invasions, forest clearance and illegal mining.

At a press conference the following year, Dom asked the president about the surge in forest fires and drew a fierce response: “The Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” Bolsonaro shot back in a clip that went viral in rightwing circles. Dom felt he had been set up, and that the president was making life more dangerous for journalists.

Undaunted, he threw himself into rainforest coverage with ever more vigour and took a year off to start writing a book, How to Save the Amazon. He burned through a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation on reporting trips, and he and Alê had to move from expensive Rio to cheaper Salvador, and borrow money from his family in Britain. This was to be his deepest dive yet into Brazil, an attempt to understand why poverty and politics were driving people into illegal activity, and to focus on solutions, especially those provided by Indigenous communities. He and Bruno were last seen alive as they set off up the Javari valley.

Their deaths highlighted the causes they championed, and the image of their side-by-side portraits was taken up nationally and internationally, as when the Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso carried it on stage. Alê believed her music-loving husband would have been delighted to know he shared a stage with Caetano, but also wryly amused at the fuss: “He is now a hero, but Dom had no ego so if he is looking at this, he would think it is not for me, this is for the rainforest and the people who preserve it. The attention would make him happy for that reason.”

She survives him, along with Sian and Gareth.

• Dom (Dominic Mark) Phillips, journalist, born 23 July 1964; died 5 June 2022


Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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