people walking through mud in a village in Brazil

'We still have a little hope of finding them': A journalist and anthropologist working in the Amazon have gone missing

Some fear that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira may have been kidnapped, disappeared or killed by members of criminal groups in the area. 

The World

British journalist Dom Phillips, right, and a Yanomami Indigenous man walk in Maloca Papiu village, Roraima state, Brazil, Nov. 2019. Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira have been reported missing in a remote part of Brazil's Amazon region, a local Indigenous association said June 6, 2022.

Joao Laet/AP

The Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian anthropologist Bruno Pereira went missing on Sunday while traveling by boat in one of the largest Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon.

It’s an area that, in recent years, has become increasingly dangerous due to invasions from illegal loggers, miners and narcotraffickers.

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The news of their disappearances have rattled Brazilians and highlights the threat to those who strive to defend Indigenous lands in the Amazon.

“We still have a little hope of finding them. Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they need to be found. Please, intensify the search.”

 Alessandra Sampaio, wife of Dom Phillips

“We still have a little hope of finding them,” said Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, in an emotional video posted online on Tuesday. “Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they need to be found. Please, intensify the search.”

Some fear that Phillips and Pereira may have been kidnapped, disappeared or killed by members of criminal groups in the area. According to reports, Phillips, who was researching the Indigenous Javarí Valley in the far western Amazon, and Pereira, an anthropologist and a former longtime employee of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, received threats during their trip.

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There are 20,000 illegal miners reportedly on the land of the Yanomami people in Brazil’s Northern Amazon, something that Phillips reported on extensively for The Guardian.

“Indigenous groups have been denouncing the land invasions carried out by illegal loggers, miners, fishermen, hunters as well as the presence of narcotraffickers,” said Guenter Francisco Loebens, who works in the region with Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Eliesio Marubo, the lawyer for the Union of Indigenous Organizations of the Javari Valley said that they were actively searching the region where Phillips and Pereira were last seen. So far, they had found nothing.

“The Brazilian government announced through official channels that they had a search team on the ground, but they didn’t and we have been searching alone, with the support of the military police,” he said.

Marubo said that the union had identified three suspects who may be responsible for the men’s disappearances, and that military police had detained one person.

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Phillips’ and Pereira’s disappearances are part of a concerning trend of violence in the Amazon region against journalists, environmentalists and Indigenous peoples.

Thirty-five Indigenous people were killed in land conflicts in the region last year — up from 20 the year before, according to a recent report from the Pastoral Land Commission.

The huge majority of those were in the Amazon, which is home to the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world.

“This is just one of many regions where people are being killed.”

Barbara Arisi, anthropologist

“This is just one of many regions where people are being killed,” said anthropologist Barbara Arisi, speaking about the Javari Valley.

Last year, one Yanomami village came under attack from illegal miners in speedboats. Two children drowned in the confusion.

Antenor Vaz worked for more than 30 years with Brazil’s Indigenous Agency, FUNAI. He said that illegal land invaders have been empowered by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

“These criminal groups feel legitimized with the discourse of the president, which supports illegal miners on Indigenous land, backs cattle ranching on Indigenous land and weakens the protections of Indigenous rights to their territories,” he said.

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Brazil’s Indigenous Agency FUNAI used to protect Indigenous territories with robust resources, teams and equipment. Today, former employees say, the agency has been gutted, resources cut and employees fired

“FUNAI now is completely demoralized,” said Armando Soares, who worked with the agency for nearly four decades, including many years in the Javari Valley. “In my day, we yelled and land invaders stopped. We told them to drop their weapons and they dropped everything. They were scared. We were respected. Now, they’re killing our people.”

Land invasions of Indigenous territories more than doubled during Bolsonaro’s first year in office. They’ve continued to rise each year.

“We knew it was a dangerous place, but Dom really believed it’s possible to safeguard the nature and the livelihood of the Indigenous people,” Dom Phillips' sister said in an online plea for help. “We’re really worried about him. And urge the authorities in Brazil to do all they can to search the routes they were following.”