SAO PAULO ― A trio of prominent Indigenous organizations accused the Brazilian government of slow-walking a search-and-rescue mission to locate missing journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira, saying in a statement that with few exceptions the police, military and other authorities have “so far been absent from the search effort.”
Phillips and Pereira have been missing since Sunday, when they did not return from a trip into the Vale do Javari, a vast and remote region of the Amazon Rainforest in far western Brazil.
The disappearance of Phillips and Pereira has captivated Brazil, leading nightly newscasts and dominating newspaper front pages. The broad sense that the government has slow-walked the response, meanwhile, has generated protests from Indigenous groups and pleas from journalists, politicians, actors, television personalities and prominent athletes that the Brazilian authorities finally spring to action.
Phillips is an experienced environmental reporter who has covered Brazil and the Amazon for more than a decade for The Guardian. He has also been a contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPost and other outlets. Pereira is a career employee of FUNAI ― the Brazilian government’s main Indigenous affairs agency ― and an adviser to many Indigenous tribes within the forest.
Phillips is currently working on a book about the Amazon region and tribal efforts to protect the forest and their lands within it. He was in the Javari Valley to speak with Indigenous people.
The Vale do Javari, home to numerous Indigenous tribes and a large number of isolated people who have no known contact with the outside world, has been a hotbed of escalating violence between Indigenous peoples and illegal miners, fishers and loggers in recent years. Pereira has faced threats from illicit actors throughout his career, and illegal fisherman subjected him and Phillips to fresh intimidation on Saturday, according to leaders from Univaja, a coalition of tribes that live inside the valley.
A Univaja leader told The Washington Post it is unlikely that Pereira and Phillips suffered an accident along the Itaquai River, where they were last seen. Brazilian authorities have already opened a criminal investigation into their disappearance, and it’s highly possible that Phillips and Pereira were attacked by illicit actors who objected to their presence in the region.
The search-and-rescue mission got off to a stunted start. On Monday, the Amazon Military Command issued a statement saying that it was ready to mobilize its forces to locate the missing pair. But, it said, it still needed authorization from the “higher ranks” of the military. The Brazilian Navy, meanwhile, did not initially authorize helicopter flights to assist the search.
Since then, the Brazilian government has insisted that the military and federal police units have launched a robust search-and-rescue operation, and President Jair Bolsonaro said in a Tuesday evening television interview that “the armed forces are working hard” to locate the pair.
But Indigenous groups that have engaged in their own search operations disputed those claims in a statement Wednesday, saying that some of the government’s insistences are “not true” and that it has done too little to find the missing journalist and his companion. Beyond six Federal Police officers and a team from FUNAI, the government had little presence in the region, the groups said.
“There are ample Army troops stationed in the area,” Univaja said in the statement. “So far, however, the number of agents made available is miniscule in relation to the urgency of locating Pereira and Phillips.”
OPI, a group that works to protect the rights of isolated Indigenous tribes, and APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous organization, also signed onto the statement, which criticized the “slow pace” of the search and rescue operation.
The lack of government action has forced Indigenous groups and other organizations to try to fill in the gaps. Univaja has conducted searches up and down the river since Sunday, and along with a federal public defender have filed a complaint with a federal court seeking to force the military and police to take more action. Greenpeace Brazil, a chapter of the global environmental organization, offered the use of a plane it owns to Univaja so that it could conduct flights over the Vale do Javari in search of Phillips and Pereira, a spokesperson told HuffPost.
The flights began on Wednesday, with leaders from Univaja and COIAB, a coalition of Indigenous groups that work within the Amazon Rainforest, aboard.
“We and others have been trying to figure out how we can best support [groups] that are trying to get out there and search while the government doesn’t do anything,” said Daniel Brindis, a special adviser to Greenpeace Brazil who is based in Washington.
Elisio Marubo, a Univaja attorney, told CNN Brasil that the organization had launched a “relentless” search for the missing pair and sent a team to establish a camp near where they are believed to have disappeared.
“Our team is still there, unlike the authorities who return to the city, so as soon as possible they will find traces of Bruno and Dom,” Marubo said.
The military has released pictures of soldiers searching the area by boat, but it was unclear if it had begun to use helicopters to search for the missing pair on Wednesday. The Brazilian Navy did not immediately respond to requests for comment about its search or the criticisms of it.
There are signs that the operation may be starting to intensify. In response to the complaint from the federal public defender and Univaja, a Brazilian federal judge on Wednesday ordered the government to immediately “enable the use of helicopters, boats and search teams” to aid the search for Phillips and Pereira.
Police, meanwhile, detained and questioned a suspect they said used his boat to chase Phillips and Pereira down the Itaquai River.
But Bolsonaro’s personal stance toward Phillips and Pereira’s disappearance has been unsympathetic. On Tuesday night, he characterized their disappearances as an unfortunate result of an ill-fated “adventure” into the forest.
“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,” Bolsonaro said in a television interview.
Indigenous and environmental groups have asserted that the meager search for Phillips and Pereira cannot be separated from the cavalier approach Bolsonaro has taken toward the Amazon Rainforest and its Indigenous populations. Bolsonaro has closely allied himself with wildcat miners, illegal loggers and other illicit interests seeking to exploit the forest, and attempted to tear down what little infrastructure existed to keep Brazil’s most remote environmental regions from descending into lawlessness.
Since taking office in 2019, the right-wing president has relaxed environmental enforcement laws and fines as part of a broader effort to promote economic development in the Amazon region. That approach has opened the forest and Indigenous lands to illegal mining, fishing, logging and other exploitative interests, generated record levels of deforestation and promoted numerous attacks on Indigenous communities.
It has created, Indigenous groups say, a culture of impunity within remote regions like the Vale do Javari and resulted in what tribal leaders have called a genocidal campaign against them.
“Every hour that passes decreases the possibilities that the two missing men will be rescued, while cementing the reign of increasingly confident criminals in a land made lawless by an absent State,” the statement from Univaja said. “We are watching, yet again, as the Bolsonaro government abandons its responsibilities amid escalating violence against Indigenous peoples and defenders of human rights in Brazil.”
On Tuesday, Phillips’ wife issued a tearful plea to the authorities to find her husband and Pereira, even as she acknowledged that her hopes they’d be found alive were dwindling.
“Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, we must find them, please,” she said in a video posted to Twitter.
Pelé, perhaps the world’s most well-known Brazilian, joined her plea. “The fight for the preservation of the Amazon Forest and for the protection of indigenous peoples belongs to all of us. I am moved by the disappearance of Dom Phillips and Bruno Ferreira, who dedicate their lives to this,” the iconic soccer star tweeted. “I join the many voices that make the call to intensify the search.”
Indigenous groups held a demonstration outside FUNAI headquarters in Brasilia, the capital, on Tuesday night, while others attempted to generate more international pressure on Brazil.
Also on Tuesday, Sonia Guajajara, a prominent Brazilian Indigenous leader, told U.S. climate envoy John Kerry about the disappearances during an event in New York City. Guajajara tweeted that she asked Kerry to push the White House to pressure the Brazilian government on the issue during a meeting between Bolsonaro and President Joe Biden at the Summit for the Americas this week. U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) and other House progressives have also urged the Brazilian government to take action.
The disappearance of Phillips and Pereira has drawn international attention to the threats facing Indigenous communities in the Vale do Javari and Brazil more widely. Indigenous groups and tribal leaders argue that the slow and insufficient investigation into their disappearances, meanwhile, should attract more focus to the culture of impunity that has set in within the Vale do Javari and the Amazon Rainforest more broadly.
In 2019, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, an expert on Indigenous issues and a contract worker for FUNAI, was assassinated in Tabatinga, the largest city in the region that also includes the Vale do Javari. His murder was never solved.
Across Brazil, meanwhile, illegal invasions of Indigenous lands rose by 137% from 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office, to 2020, according to research from the Indigenous Missionary Council of Brazil. Killings have also increased: 182 Indigenous people were murdered in 2020, a 67% increase from the year prior, the council found.
An insufficient response to Phillips and Pereira’s disappearance may only deepen the belief among illicit actors that they can threaten, intimidate and even kill tribal members, journalists and human rights workers without consequence.
“As long as policies contrary to the promotion of human rights continue to be the flagship of Brazil, the country will continue to be immersed in profound violence that borders on barbarism ― and offering its people more reasons to regret than to celebrate,” Greenpeace Brazil and Greenpeace UK said in a joint statement Tuesday night.
“It is urgent that the Brazilian government mobilize all the necessary efforts to find Bruno Araújo Pereira and Dom Phillips,” the statement said. “Otherwise they will become victims of this context of insecurity spread by the ‘anything goes’ policy that has been established in the Amazon.”