WORLD / AMERICAS
Phillips and Pereira: Two men who loved the Amazon
Courageous adventurers
Published: Jun 16, 2022 07:06 PM
People protest outside the Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, Brazil on June 14, 2022 over missing British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous affairs specialist Bruno Pereira. Photo: AFP

People protest outside the Ministry of Justice in Brasilia, Brazil on June 14, 2022 over missing British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous affairs specialist Bruno Pereira. Photo: AFP

Veteran British freelance journalist Dom Phillips and ­respected Brazilian ­Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira shared a passion for the farthest reaches of the Amazon rainforest, where they went missing and were buried, according to a confession obtained by police.

The pair were last seen early on June 5 traveling by boat in Brazil's Javari Valley, a far-flung jungle region near the border with Peru, where Phillips was researching a book.

The region has seen a surge of criminal activity in recent years, including illegal logging, gold mining, poaching and drug trafficking - incursions Phillips has reported on and Pereira has vigorously fought.

Police said Wednesday that one of two men arrested over their disappearance admitted to having buried their bodies in the jungle. While ­human remains have been found, they have not been definitively confirmed to be those of Pereira and Phillips.

Police did not specify whether the suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also confessed to killing the pair, saying only that he admitted to having participated in the episode and "recounted in detail the crime that was committed and indicated the place where he buried the bodies." 

Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, head of federal police in Brazil's Amazonas State, said during a press conference in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, that the location where the remains were found was "very difficult to reach."

"Excavations have been carried out on site. The excavations will continue, but human remains have already been found," he said.

"As soon as we have been able to verify with the help of expertise that it is indeed the remains of Dom ­Phillips and Bruno Pereira, they will be returned to the families."

Earlier in the day, Oliveira was ­taken by police to the search site along the Itaquai River, media reports said.

Pereira and Phillips had already traveled there together in 2018 for a feature story Phillips wrote in British newspaper The Guardian on an ­uncontacted tribe - one of an estimated 19 in the region.

"Wearing just shorts and flip-flops as he squats in the mud by a fire, Bruno Pereira, an official at Brazil's government Indigenous agency, cracks open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats its brains for breakfast as he discusses policy," it began.

That memorable introduction neatly sums up both men, courageous adventurers who loved the rainforest and its peoples, each ­defending the Amazon in his own way.

'Sharp, caring journalist'

Phillips, 57, started out as a music journalist in Britain, editing the magazine Mixmag and writing a book on the rise of DJ culture.

Lured by DJ friends, he set off for Brazil 15 years ago, falling in love with the country and the woman who became his wife, Alessandra Sampaio - a native of the northeastern city of Salvador.

Reinventing himself as a foreign correspondent, Phillips covered Brazil for various media including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times and The Guardian, where he was a regular contributor.

A group of friends and colleagues described Phillips as "one of the sharpest and most caring foreign journalists in South America."

"But there was a lot more to him than pages and paragraphs," they said in a statement.

"His friends knew him as a smiling guy who would get up before dawn to do stand-up paddle. We knew him as a caring volunteer worker who gave English classes in a Rio favela." 

Phillips traveled in and wrote about the Amazon for dozens of stories, winning a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation in 2021 to fund his project to write a book on sustainable development in the rainforest.

The project took him back to the region he loved.

"Lovely Amazon," he posted on Instagram earlier this month, along with a video of a small boat winding down a meandering river.

Until recently working as a top expert at Brazil's Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, Pereira was head of programs for isolated and recently contacted Indigenous groups.

As part of that job, the 41-year-old organized one of the largest ever ­expeditions to monitor isolated groups and try to avoid conflicts between them and others in the region.

Fiona Watson, research director at Indigenous rights group Survival International, called him a "courageous and dedicated" defender of Indigenous peoples.

Pereira was especially revered for his knowledge of the Javari Valley, where he was also FUNAI's regional coordinator for years. But he was on leave from the agency after butting heads with the new leadership.

Pereira "was effectively forced out at FUNAI, basically because he was doing what FUNAI should be doing and have stopped doing since ­Bolsonaro took office: Standing up for Indigenous rights," Watson told AFP.

Pereira frequently received threats for his work fighting illegal invasions of the Javari reservation.

That includes helping set up Indigenous patrols. He and Phillips were on their way to a meeting on one such patrol project when they disappeared.

"Every time he enters the rainforest, he brings his passion and drive to help others," Pereira's family said in a statement.