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“Intensify the Search”: Journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous Expert Bruno Pereira Missing in Brazil

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Image Credit: Joao Laet/AFP via Getty Images

British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira have still not been found, after being reported missing Sunday in one of Brazil’s most remote areas of the Amazon. The pair were traveling across the region to interview Indigenous leaders patrolling the area for illegal miners and fishers for Phillips’s upcoming book. “We know that they had been receiving threats. We know that there are other people who are being threatened in this territory,” says Ana Alfinito, Brazil legal adviser for Amazon Watch. Alfinito also explains how Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has systematically destroyed protections for Indigenous groups across the Amazon.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends the Summit of the Americas this week in Los Angeles, fear is growing over the safety of British journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, a protector of Brazilian Indigenous communities, after the pair were reported missing Sunday in Brazil in one of the most remote areas of the Amazon.

Phillips is a longtime freelance reporter, and Pereira is a former Brazilian government official. The two were last seen while traveling by boat in the northern Brazilian state of Amazonas near the border with Peru. Phillips was doing research for a book on the Amazon and was in the region to interview Indigenous leaders patrolling the area for illegal miners and fishers. Pereira had recently received death threats over his work, which followed the murders of many Indigenous leaders and local journalists working in the Amazon in recent years.

Pereira’s partner told a São Paulo newspaper, quote, “I have a three-year-old son and one who is two. All I can think about right now is that he comes up safe, for the sake of the boys.” Dom Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, appealed for help in finding her husband.

ALESSANDRA SAMPAIO: [translated] We demand the competent organisms to intensify the search, because we still have a small hope of finding them. Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they have to be found. Please intensify their search. Before, I didn’t want to speak, because the whole family was very surprised. We didn’t know how to react. But, please, I make this call to intensify the search. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Brazilian government has said it’s trying to find Phillips and Pereira, but authorities have been accused of failing to act quickly. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro appeared to blame the two men for their own disappearance, saying, quote, “Two people in a boat in a region like that, completely wild — it’s an unadvisable adventure. Anything can happen. Maybe there was an accident, maybe they were executed,” Bolsonaro said.

Well, for more, we’re joined in São Paulo by Ana Alfinito, the Brazilian legal adviser for Amazon Watch.

Welcome to Democracy Now! In this last few minutes we have with you, Ana, can you tell us what you know, where they were last seen, the significance of their work, and what you’re calling for?

ANA ALFINITO: Yes. Good morning. Good morning, Amy.

So, what we know is that Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips were last seen in a small riverine community in the northwest of Amazonas state. They were there doing the work defending the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples in this region. They had been working — Bruno Pereira was one of — is one of the most experienced Indigenous specialists in Brazil. He has worked for a long time in this region. He’s a longtime public servant of FUNAI. He had been there to support the territorial surveillance of Indigenous groups in the Javari Valley. And he was joined by Dom Phillips, a journalist, longtime correspondent of several international medias, where they were working to denounce, register the attacks against Indigenous territorial rights in this region.

They were last seen on Sunday in this riverine community, when they were heading back to a city called Atalaia do Norte. They were supposed to arrive on Sunday in the city, but they never arrived. So, the search operations against them are being carried out since then, especially by the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Vale do Javari, UNIVAJA, who has been calling on, together with other civil society organizations, desperately calling on government to send resources and to send people for this operation, because we know that every second counts, so that we can find them alive and well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ana, could you tell us who are the UNIVAJA patrol teams? And also, could you comment on President Bolsonaro’s response, saying it could have been an accident, they could have been executed, but that it wasn’t advisable for them to go in the area where they went?

ANA ALFINITO: Yes, of course. So, it’s important to understand what this patrol team is, against the backdrop of Indigenous policy in Brazil under the Bolsonaro government. So, the Bolsonaro government is dismantling all structures of Indigenous policies in Brazil. He has been — his government has been underfunding all sorts of enforcement operations. So, today, the government is no longer carrying out environmental — social environmental enforcement of Indigenous lands. There has been increased pressure from illegal markets within these lands.

So, if we look at the Vale do Javari Indigenous land, this is the second-largest Indigenous territory in Brazil. It’s a territory with the highest concentration of isolated Indigenous peoples in the country. So this region is a heritage of humanity in environmental and in cultural terms. But, unfortunately, under the Bolsonaro government, federal government has been doing nearly nothing to protect these lands. Quite on the contrary, it has transformed the federal Indigenous agency, FUNAI, into an anti-Indigenous bureaucracy that’s been attacking Indigenous rights, criminalizing Indigenous leaders. And it’s against this backdrop that Indigenous groups in the Vale do Javari Indigenous land and in other Indigenous lands have been by themselves organizing to protect their territory.

And this is what the surveillance groups are about, to register, to denounce the invasion of the territories, and to demand that government do its part to remove illegal occupants, illegal fishing people from Indigenous lands. So, it’s in this context of supporting these surveillance groups that Dom Phillips and that Bruno Pereira have disappeared. And we know that they had been receiving threats. We know that there are other people —

AMY GOODMAN: We have three seconds.

ANA ALFINITO: — who are being threatened in this territory.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Ana Alfinito, Brazil legal adviser for Amazon Watch, speaking to us from São Paulo. We’ll continue to cover this case. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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