Search continues for Indigenous expert, British writer in Brazil

A British journalist and an Indigenous affairs official are still missing in a remote part of Brazil’s Amazon, as authorities said they were expanding search efforts in the area, which has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers, and government agents.

Dom Phillips, a regular contributor to British newspaper The Guardian, and Indigenous expert Bruno Araujo Pereira were last seen early on Sunday in the Sao Rafael community, according to the Univaja association of people in the Vale do Javari Indigenous territory, where Pereira has been an adviser.

The pair was returning by boat to the city of Atalaia do Norte, about an hour away, but never arrived.

Guilherme Torres, the head of the interior department of Amazonas state’s civil police, said Pereira had recently received a threatening letter from a local fisherman who police are trying to locate.

British journalist Dom Phillips has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation [Paul Sherwood/Handout via Reuters]

“We are indeed working with the hypothesis that a crime might have occurred, but there is another, much larger possibility: that they are lost,” Torres told the Reuters news agency.

“Now, our priority is to find them alive, especially in these first hours. In parallel, a criminal probe has been opened to see if there was some crime committed.”

The disappearance of the two men, who both had years of experience working in the complex and inhospitable Amazon rainforest, sparked global concern from human rights groups, environmentalists, politicians and press freedom advocates.

In an emotional TV interview, Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, urged authorities to intensify their search efforts, “because we still have a little hope of finding them”.

“Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they have to be found, please,” she added.

Pereira is one of the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency’s most experienced employees operating in the Vale do Javari area. He oversaw the agency’s regional office and the coordination of isolated Indigenous groups before going on leave.

He has received a stream of threats from illegal fishermen and poachers, and usually carries a gun.

Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book about the preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which gave him a yearlong fellowship for environmental reporting that ran through January.

The pair disappeared while returning from a two-day trip to the Jaburu Lake region, where Phillips interviewed local Indigenous people, the Univaja community said. Only the two were on the boat.

The place where the pair went missing is the primary access route to the Vale do Javari, Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory, where several thousand Indigenous people live in dozens of villages.

People from the area say that it is highly unlikely the men would have gotten lost in that area.

“He is a cautious journalist, with impressive knowledge of the complexities of the Brazilian environmental crisis,” Margaret Engel, the Alicia Patterson Foundation’s executive director, wrote in an email. “And he is a beautiful writer and a lovely person. The best of our business.”

Dom Phillips
The area where the pair went missing is the primary access route to the Vale do Javari, Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory, where several thousand Indigenous people live in dozens of villages [File: Joao Laet/AP]

Brazil’s federal public prosecutors said in a statement on Monday that they had opened an investigation and that the Federal Police, Amazonas state’s civil police, the national guard and the navy had all been mobilised.

The navy, which prosecutors described as coordinating the search, said it sent a search-and-rescue team of seven and would deploy a helicopter on Tuesday.

There were no reports of helicopters being used at any point on Monday, and many of the men’s colleagues expressed concern that the government did not appear to be acting swiftly enough.

“We request from the authorities speed, seriousness, and all possible resources for that search,” Pereira’s family wrote in a statement.

“Every minute counts, every stretch of the river and the forest not yet checked could be the one where they are waiting for rescue.”

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro commented on Tuesday: “Really, just two people in a boat in a completely wild region like that is not a recommended adventure”.

“Anything could happen. It could be an accident, it could be that they have been killed,” he said in an interview with television network SBT.

“We hope and ask God that they’re found soon. The armed forces are working hard.”

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