‘The Amazon is a lawless land’

Dom Phillips

Supporters at a vigil outside the Brazilian embassy in London for Dom Phillips and Bruno Araujo Pereira. Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Images

Another day in Brazil without any news of British journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira. The pair have been missing in the Vale do Javari region, in the Brazilian Amazon, since 6 June. They were last seen as they left the São Rafael riverside community, on their way to the city of Atalaia do Norte.

Phillips, a journalist who writes for the Guardian, has lived in Brazil for almost 15 years. Passionate about the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world, he has travelled extensively in the region, covering, among other subjects, the environmental crisis in Brazil and issues that plague indigenous communities. At the time of his disappearance he was working on a book about the environment, with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Pereira, a long time official of Brazil’s Indigenous rights organisation, is a former employee of the National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI), an agency of the Brazilian government.

Both were travelling by boat on the Itaquaí River, in the Vale do Javari region, which is close to the border with Peru. Index spoke to Paulo Marubo, executive director of the Union of Indigenous Organizations of the Javari Valley (Univaja), who was one of the last people to see the pair. He said they were there visiting Univaja’s team on the border of the indigenous reserve. On Saturday, they were all threatened by a group of miners and developers, carrying guns.

“Dom even took a photo of these gangs (showing their guns), which got lost with his disappearance, and they left indignant about it. On Sunday they went out and stopped at a village called São Rafael, where they looked for a man called Churrasco to deal with a lake management project. But he wasn’t there. After they left, we didn’t hear from them anymore,” Marubo told Index.

Marubo said that those at the forefront of indigenous movements often receive threats. He added that the developers feel supported by the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who does not help the indigenous population or protect the lands that are being destroyed. Thus, they operate in a situation where Univaja constantly fight with the state, not just criminal gangs.

“An example of this is Bruno himself, who asked for a license from the current government, which is anti-indigenous,” he said.

In a statement from Tuesday, Bolsonaro, who has not hidden his support of development projects in the Amazon, blamed the missing men rather than the gangs that operate out of the Amazon and make it so dangerous.

“Two people in a boat, in a completely wild region like this, is an adventure that isn’t recommendable for one to do,” he said. “Anything could happen — an accident could happen, they could have been executed — anything.”

The executive coordinator of Univaja has also been targeted by a fisherman, known as Nei, who was interrogated and released by the police after the disappearance of Phillips and Pereira.

In the region where they disappeared, many riverside peoples live, in places that are difficult to access. These areas are rife with crime, such as drug trafficking and illegal deforestation, commanded not only by Brazilians but also by Peruvians and Colombians. All these groups seek absolute control of the region, so the risk to the lives of those who speak out against them or fight for the preservation of the Amazon is high. In Pereira’s case, he had already been threatened by loggers and even fishermen.

There are many examples that show the difficulties and dangers that plague the Amazon region. One of the most famous to date is the murder of the activist Chico Mendes, on 22 December, 1988. An active voice in the struggle to preserve the Amazon, Mendes was frequently threatened by powerful local landowners. Three days before Christmas in 1988, when he was getting ready to take a shower at his home in Xapuri, Acre, he was murdered by Darci Alves, who shot him in the chest. Alves was the son of an influential developer in the region.

The murder of indigenous people has sadly become a devastating trend in Brazil recently. In April, the Pastoral Land Commission released a report revealing that 109 indigenous murders were registered in the country in 2021.

At the same time, the situation for journalists is deteriorating. According to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), from 2019 to May 2022 attacks against press professionals grew by 248%. In 2021, 453 attacks were counted, with Bolsonaro being accountable for 89 verbal insults to journalists.

“The situation is worsening. In 2018, when I was reporting on the elections for governor in Rio Grande do Sul (in Brazil’s south) with two other female journalists from a traditional left-wing paper, some Bolsonaro’s supporters approached us trying to see what we were writing, trying to get my badge to look for me on social media, a very hostile atmosphere,” said Filipe Strazzer, a journalist who at the time was working for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, one of the most important in Brazil.

“About environmental issues, I wouldn’t be brave enough to report on that. The Amazon is a lawless land, too many risks involved, powerful people who absolutely control it, so it makes me fearful, and you can’t really develop your work,” he said, remembering the famous case of the missionary Dorothy Stang. Born in the United States and with Brazilian citizenship, she was an environmental activist who was murdered in the Amazon, in the state of Pará, in February 2005. At the time, she was being threatened by rich farmers, landowners and loggers.

In the case of the disappearance of Phillips and Pereira, a search is underway. Around 250 people, mostly military personnel with experience in operations in a jungle environment, are participating in the search. Two aircraft, three drones and 20 vehicles are being used, according to Globo’s website.

But Marubo believes that this effort will not be enough to find them and that more needs to be done. The area is dense, difficult terrain and so they need to go into the lakes, into the forests, and not just stick to the main rivers, he said.

“I have asked the federal police to carry out the investigation in this way and not give up because otherwise these bandits will laugh in our face,” said Marubo.

In an open letter initiated by The Guardian and Washington Post, editors from around the world asked that the search be intensified and that the Brazilian government give more priority to the case.

“We ask that you urgently step up and fully resource the effort to locate Dom and Bruno, and that you provide all possible support to their families and friends,” the letter said.

We support this letter. The entire Index on Censorship team is hoping that Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira will be found alive and that more priority will be given to promoting and protecting those defending land, and those reporting on it.

Brazilian indians go online to demand their rights are protected

Brazil’s indigenous peoples are increasingly using the internet to fight for their rights, says Rafael Spuldar

Alberto Cesar Araujo - Demotix

Brazil’s indigenous population have gone online to campaign against social injustice in their community – Alberto Cesar Araujo/Demotix

Despite their poor economic and living conditions, Brazil’s indigenous peoples are increasingly using the internet to make their struggle for rights known to the world.

Historically, native Brazilians have been deprived of proper citizenship, first by slavery and the loss of their homeland in the 16th century and, after that, by prejudice, impoverishment, the loss of cultural traces and the disappearance of entire populations. But, the emergence of the internet has allowed Brazilian Indians access to a new era of free speech and civil activity.

One example of their fight to be heard is the campaign against the Draft Constitutional Amendment #215, currently being debated in the Chamber of Deputies. If the amendment passes, it would remove the Federal Government’s power to delimit indigenous lands and pass it to Congress.

Indigenous leaders fear this would strengthen landowners’ powers, who already have a strong lobbying position in Congress and would likely do their best to inhibit the creation of new reservations.

An online petition against the amendment has gathered more than 27,000 signatures.

Their cause also attracted huge support through social media late last year. Facebook users showed support to the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples by adding “Guarani-Kaiowá” to their profile name. The 45,000-strong group perpetually struggle to protect their ancestral province from land-grabbing farmers in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

In January 2013, however, Facebook ordered the additional names be removed, reminding users that they were forbidden from adopting fake names on their accounts.

Access to justice

Considered to be one of the main platforms for indigenous discussion, the Índios Online website is maintained by indian peoples from the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Roraima and Pernambuco.

Supported by the Ministry of Culture and Thydewá, an organisation protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, Índios Online allows “offline” Native Brazilians from all over the country to voice their needs and interact with other users.

According to the president of Thydewá, Sebastián Gerlic, those who feel their interests have been threatened by the website often approach the Justice system to censor its content — particularly regarding videos produced and uploaded by the indians.

Ingigenous Brazilian Potyra Tê Tupinambá ended up in court for her film documenting land reposession in an indigenous reservation in the northeastern state of Bahia. The ongoing lawsuit was taken out by a land owner interviewed on camera. It was a testimony, according to Gerlic, given spontaneously and with no animosity.

“The farmer accused Potyra of transmitting his image on the internet without his permission, and now he looks for reparation,” says the president of Thydewá, who took reponsibility for the director’s legal defence.

The internet was also a strong ally in the indigenous peoples’ struggle against the looting of the natural resources on their reservations. In mid-2011, the Ashaninka people used a solar-powered computer to denounce the invasion of their land by Peruvian woodcutters. This information was passed to authorities in federal capital Brasília, who sent a task force formed by the Federal Police and the Brazilian Army to arrest the invaders.

The Ashaninkas also addressed chief justice of the Supreme Court Joaquim Barbosa in an online petition, urging the Supreme Court to address the problem of tree cutting in their native territory. They demanded financial reparation for the lumbering activities that could reach 15,000,000 BRL (around 30,000,000 USD). 

Limited access

Indians usually access the internet through centres maintained by Funai, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation or in LAN (local area network) houses, schools or in private homes. Funai does not have any digital inclusion programme specifically for the indigenous peoples – this responsibility goes to the Ministry of Culture. Through its programme called “Points of Culture”, the Ministry invested more than 1,300,000 BRL (about £447,000) on installing internet connections inside the Indian communities.

Despite public investments, online access has grown far less in indigenous communities than in poorer urban areas. According to a survey led by Rio de Janeiro State’s Secretary of Culture, in partnership with NGO Observatório das Favelas (“Slum Observatory”), 9 out of 10 people living in low-income areas in Rio have internet access.

Brazil has a population of 896,917 indigenous people divided in 230 different ethnic groups, according to the last Brazilian Census from 2010. This represents around 0.47 per cent of the country’s population.

Amongst this populus, access to employment is a problem. According to the last Census, 83 per cent of adult Brazilian indians earn no more than minimum wage (678 BRL a month, about £233) and 52.9 per cent of them don’t have any income at all.

According to the Indigenous Missionary Counsel, an organisation aiding native Brazilian peoples, at least 200 indians have been killed in Brazil in the last decade, mainly because of land disputes.