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Crime and Justice

Murder in the Amazon: how much are Bolsonaro's policies to blame?

A federal police investigator said a suspect confessed and detailed what happened to British journalist, Dom Phillips, and Brazilian indigenous rights defender, Bruno Pereira.
Publicado 18 Jun 2022 – 01:42 PM EDT | Actualizado 26 Sep 2022 – 05:05 PM EDT
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Veteran foreign correspondent Dom Phillips (C) talks to two indigenous men in Aldeia Maloca Papiú, Roraima State, Brazil, on November 16, 2019. Crédito: JOAO LAET/AFP via Getty Images

The murders in the Amazon of a British journalist and a Brazilian indigenous rights defender come amid widespread criticism of Brazil’s policies on the environment and the protection of indigenous tribes living in the rain forests.

The journalist Dom Phillips and his Brazilian companion Bruno Pereira, went missing on 5 June, at the end of a four-day trip down the Itaquaí river in an area of the far west of Brazil known as the Javari Valley, the which is the country’s second-largest indigenous reserve.

Deforestation has soared in recent years and government agencies devoted to protecting the environment and Indigenous communities have been undermined by the government of president Jair Bolsonaro, experts say.

Pereira, 41, was accompanying Phillips, 57, on a reporting trip for a book about saving the Amazon but their boat did not arrive as scheduled at a river town near Brazil’s border with Peru.

The Javari indigenous land

“The Javari indigenous land is really one of the gems of the Amazon and perhaps really of the world,” Scott Wallace, a professor of environmental journalism at the University of Connecticut, told Univision. “It is an intact, unbroken, primal forest, rich with wildlife, fish, timber, it is a gme of ecological and cultural diversity… but unfortunately it has been largely neglected in terms of its protection,” he added.

Wallace spent several weeks in the Javari in 2002 researching a book about the last ‘uncontacted’ indigenous tribes in Brazil, and he knew Phillips and Pereira well. “It’s a terrible loss. These were two beautiful human beings who cared deeply about the Amazon and the people who live there,” he said.

What is the responsibility of the Bolsonaro government in the murder of Phillips and Pereira?

The Bolsonaro government has drawn criticism that the government didn’t respond fast enough when the two men were reported missing last week. Bolsonaro is a frequent critic of journalists and indigenous experts and had criticized Phillips in an interview, saying that locals in the area where he went missing didn’t like him and that he should have been more careful.

Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in a statement that news of the murders had prompted “pain and indignation” and linked the crime to the dismantling of policies to protect Indigenous people.

“Democracy and Brazil can no longer tolerate violence, hatred and contempt for the values of civilization,” he said. “Bruno and Dom will live in our memory – and in the hope of a better world”.

The responsibility of the Brazilian government is not limited to the current Bolsonaro administration, but goes back to the time of Michel Temer, who replaced Dilma Rousseff as interim president after she was impeached by Congress in 2016.

Ilegal activity by fishermen or poachers has multiplied in recent years, operating with virtual impunity thanks to the non-intervention policy of Bolsonaro's government, activists say. “Dating back really about eight years, protections for these areas in the Amazon for indigenous territories and for protected areas like National Parks has really declined and this process has really accelerated under Bolsonaro,” said Wallace. “It’s a different place from when I was there. The government was still making a concerted effort to uphold the rule of law,” he added.

Pereira was at the forefront of efforts to protect the Javari organize themselves so that they could defend their territory from the predations of loggers gold prospectors, fishermen, hunters, and bushmeat hunters. “That's why he was there. He has a long history of involvement in the Javari,” said Wallace.

“He loves those people knows them well. And they really trusted him,” he added.

Pereira was a prominent figure in the state office charged with protecting indigenous communities. He later began working with indigenous rights organizations to help them map their territories deep in the rainforest and protect them from invasions by miners, loggers, and drug-traffickers.

Until now, journalists covering the environment in the Amazon had not been targeted, although a number of indigenous leaders have been killed.

Brazilian authorities say a local fisherman, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, 41, nicknamed ‘Pelado’, confessed to killing the two men with a gun and took police to a site where human remains were recovered, ending a 10 day search for the missing pair. Indigenous people who were with Pereira and Phillips have said that Pelado brandished a rifle at them on the day before the pair disappeared.

The motive for the killings is not known but police say they suspect an international “fish mafia” that pays poor people to fish illegally in the Javari Valley. But federal police have not ruled rule out other factors such as drug trafficking.

Warnings about poachers and drug traffickers in the area

UNIVAJA, an association of Indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, said in a statement it was in mourning for the death of Phillips and Pereira who it described as “two partners” in the struggle to protect their lands. Their death were “a priceless loss,” it added.

They also did not hesitate to put the blame on the government for ignoring their repeated warnings about illegal hunters and drug traffickers in the area. “We’ve been sending information about the invasion of the Javari Valley to the authorities, telling them that armed gangs of poachers linked to drug traffickers are in our territory to take our resources…. but the authorities have been slow to react,” they said.

Earlier in the week, Phillips’ mother-in-law expressed her belief that the pair were no longer alive. “Their souls have joined those of so many others who gave their lives in defense of the rainforest and Indigenous peoples,” she said in an Instagram post. “Today they form part of an immense and pulsating vital energy that emanates from this immense greenery that is the heart of Brazil.”

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