Rio de Janeiro: Brazil’s navy has dispatched a crew of ten people to search for British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira who went missing while reporting in a remote and lawless part of the Amazon rainforest near the border with Peru.
A local Indigenous association reported them missing on Monday (Tuesday AEST). The area has been marked by violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.
British journalist Dom Phillips, right, and a Yanomami Indigenous man walk in Maloca Papiu village, Roraima state, Brazil, in 2019.Credit:AP
Phillips, 57, a freelancer who has been a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, New York Times and Washington Post, and Bruno Araújo Pereira were last seen at 7am on Sunday in the Sao Rafael community, according to the Univaja association of Indigenous people in the Vale do Javari, for which Pereira has been an adviser. They were returning by boat from there and bound for the city of Atalaia do Norte, about an hour away, but never showed up.
Pereira is currently on leave from his post with Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, and is one of its most experienced employees operating within the area. He oversaw the agency’s regional office and the coordination of isolated Indigenous groups before taking leave. He has received a steady stream of threats from illegal fishermen and poachers, and usually carries a gun.
Univaja said the two had been threatened during their current reporting trip.
Only the two were on the boat, according to the association.
The Itaquai River runs through the Vale do Javari region in Amazonas state, Brazil, on the border with Peru.Credit:AP
Survival International, an NGO that defends tribal peoples, said Pereira had received threats because of his many years of work with indigenous tribes “which makes the need for immediate action to locate him and Dom all the more pressing”.
Carlos Martinez de la Serna, director at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, said the disappearance of Phillips was “extremely concerning,” and urged Brazilian authorities to locate the two men quickly.
“Journalists reporting on Indigenous issues are doing critical work, and must be able to do so without fearing for their safety,” he said.
Phillips is writing a book about preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which awarded him a year-long fellowship for environmental reporting that ran through to January.
The place where they disappeared is the primary access route to and from the Vale do Javari, where several thousand Indigenous people live in dozens of villages. People in the area say that it is highly unlikely they would have gotten lost in that sector.
“He is a cautious journalist, with impressive knowledge of the complexities of the Brazilian environmental crisis,” Margaret Engel, the foundation’s executive director, wrote in an email. “And he is a beautiful writer and a lovely person. The best of our business.”
Brazil’s federal public prosecutors said in a statement they have opened an investigation and mobilised the Federal Police, Amazonas state’s civil police, the national guard and navy. The latter will coordinate search efforts, according to the statement. In a statement, the navy said it was dispatching a search and rescue team.
The army’s footprint and manpower is far greater than the navy’s in the region. It didn’t respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment.
The army’s Amazonian Command released a statement on Tuesday saying it was ready to “fulfil its humanitarian missions of search and rescue” but was waiting for official clearing.
Phillips’ wife Alessandra Sampaio appealed to the authorities to hurry up, saying “… in the forest every second counts, every second could be the difference between life and death,” The Guardian reported.
The Guardian quoted a spokesperson as saying it was “very concerned and is urgently seeking information about Mr Phillips’ whereabouts and condition. We are in contact with the British embassy in Brazil and local and national authorities to try to establish the facts as soon as possible.”
Phillips resides in Salvador, Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil.
“I hope they are found soon, that they are fine and safe,” former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva posted on Twitter, while recalling Phillips interviewing him in 2017.
The Vale do Javari region has experienced repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents, who have a permanent base in the area, known for having the world’s largest population of least contacted Indigenous people. It is also a major route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border, then smuggled into Brazil to supply local cities or to be shipped to Europe.
In September 2019, an employee of the Indigenous affairs agency was shot dead in Tabatinga, the largest city in the region. The crime was never solved.
“It is extremely important that Brazilian authorities dedicate all available and necessary resources to the immediate realisation of searches, in order to guarantee, as soon as possible, the safety of the two men,” Maria Laura Canineau, the director of Human Rights Watch in Brazil, said.
Journalists working for regional media outlets in the Amazon have been murdered in recent years, though there have been no such cases among journalists from national media nor foreign media. However, there have been several reports of threats, and the press has limited access to several areas dominated by criminal activity including illegal mining, land grabbing and drug trafficking.
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