Growing public pressure around Amazon disappearances
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Top news editors, US lawmakers, soccer superstars and Hollywood celebrities are urging Brazilian authorities to intensify their search for British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous official Bruno Pereira, who disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon last weekend.
Phillips and Pereira were last seen on Sunday morning in the Javari Valley, Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory which sits in an isolated area bordering Peru and Colombia. The two men were in the Sao Rafael community, and returning by boat to the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.
Indigenous leaders on the ground, family members and peers of Pereira and Phillips have expressed concern that authorities’ search efforts were insufficient and lacked coordination. A growing number of celebrities, politicians, civil society groups and international news organizations have joined their call, asking that the police, army and navy bolster the search efforts.
Actor Mark Ruffalo called on Twitter for an “international response”, stressing the worrying number of journalists being “attacked, killed, or disappeared”.
In Los Angeles, where Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and President Joe Biden are to meet later Thursday, two trucks parked in the middle of an avenue displayed messages along with large illustrations of Phillips and Pereira. “THREATENED. NOW MISSING. WHERE ARE DOM & BRUNO?” read one of the messages.
Several U.S. lawmakers have also turned to Twitter calling for swift action, including Sen. Ed Markey, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said on Wednesday that “Brazil must not delay a robust search and accountability process.” Others included Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Led by The Guardian and The Washington Post, where Phillips worked as a freelance journalist, international news editors and organizations published a joint letter Thursday directed to Bolsonaro, asking that he “urgently step up and fully resource the effort.” Signatories included The New Yorker, The Associated Press, Britain’s Channel 4 News, The Financial Times, France’s Agence France-Press, as well as Reporters Without Borders.
Earlier this week, Bolsonaro drew criticism when describing the two men’s work in the Amazon as an “adventure.”
“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.”
Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has most recently been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon. Pereira has long operated in Javari Valley for the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency. He oversaw their regional office and the coordination of isolated Indigenous groups before going on leave to help local Indigenous people defend themselves against illegal fishermen and poachers.
For years, Pereira had received threats for his work.
The Javari Valley has one of the world’s largest population of Indigenous people with no or little contact with the outside world.
Despite fierce resistance from the local non-Indigenous population, the federal government in 2001 created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, aiming to protect an area about the size of Portugal. Non-Indigenous communities just outside the newly established protected land had historically fished within it, and were no longer allowed. Since then, tensions have only grown.
There have been repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents in the area. It is also a major route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border, then smuggled into Brazil to supply local cities or to be shipped to Europe.
Officials have so far heard five witnesses and identified one suspect.
Civil police said Wednesday a man was arrested for allegedly carrying a firearm without a permit, which is common practice in the region. Although they have no concrete evidence to tie the man to the disappearances.
Paulo Marubo, the president of a Javari Valley association of Indigenous people, Univaja, previously told the Associated Press that Phillips and Pereira had been threatened Saturday, the day before they went missing, when a small group of men on the river brandished firearms at a Univaja patrol. Phillips photographed the men at the time and Pelado was one of them, Marubo said.
A vigil is scheduled for later Thursday evening in Brasilia, outside the government’s Indigenous agency, known as FUNAI, and in Rio de Janeiro on Jun. 12. Similar gatherings have already taken place in London and in Brasilia earlier this week.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Brazilian celebrities, including soccer superstar Pelé and actor Camila Pitanga were expressing their concern over the disappearances.