A veteran British journalist and a Brazilian indigenous affairs expert are missing in Brazil’s remote Javari Valley, in the far western part of Amazonas state.
Journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira, a staffer on leave from the Brazilian Indigenous National Foundation (FUNAI), have been missing for over 30 hours, according to the Coordination of the Indigenous Organization.
The organization, known as UNIVAJA, said that satellite information showed the pair’s last known location in the São Rafael community early on Sunday morning, where they were expected to meet with a local leader who never showed up.
After that, the missing pair had planned to take a two-hour trip to Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived, said the organization, which on Sunday deployed two rescue teams to search for them.
Home to thousands of indigenous people and about 16 uncontacted groups, the Javari Valley is a patchwork of rivers and dense forest that makes access very difficult.
The search for Phillips and Pereira is ongoing. Brazil’s federal prosecutor’s office and federal police are investigating the disappearances, and according to Eliesio Marubo, a legal representative of UNIVAJA, the Navy and state military police are also participating in the search effort.
Amazonas state governor Wilson Lima has ordered the deployment of specialized police reinforcements to reinforce search and rescue operations.
In a press release on Monday, UNIVAJA stated that Phillips and Pereira had received death threats prior to their disappearance.
“We emphasize that in the week of the disappearance, according to reports from UNIVAJA employees, the team received threats in the field. The threat was not the first,” the release said.
The area is under government protection, but repeated incursions by land grabbers, illegal miners, illegal hunters and illegal fisherman have previously produced bloody conflict.
In September 2019, another indigenous affairs worker Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was murdered in the same area, according to Brazil’s Public Prosecutor’s Office.
In a statement, a union group representing workers at Brazil’s indigenous protection agency FUNAI cited evidence that dos Santos’ murder was retaliation for his efforts to combating illegal commercial extraction in the Javari Valley, Reuters reported at the time.
FUNAI, the governmental protection agency for indigenous people, told CNN it is following the case, but highlighted that Pereira was not on duty when he disappeared.
Phillips is a long-time contributor for UK newspaper The Guardian, and the publication’s global environment editor Johnathan Watts has called for Brazilian authorities to take swift action.
“Dom Phillips, a superb journalist, regular contributor to Guardian, and great friend, is missing in Javari Valley of Amazon after death threats to his indigenista companion, Bruno Pereira, who is also missing. Calling on Brazilian authorities to urgently launch search operation,” Watts tweeted Monday.
“The Guardian is very concerned and is urgently seeking information about Mr Phillips’ whereabouts and condition. We are in contact with the British embassy in Brazil and local and national authorities to try to establish the facts as soon as possible,” the publication said in an article about Phillips Monday.
The British Council is in touch with Brazilian authorities, as Phillips is a British citizen. “We are in contact with local authorities in Brazil after the news of a British citizen’s disappearance in the Amazon region. We are providing consular support to his family,” Diego Lobo with the British Council told CNN.
Press organizations have expressed concern over the disappearance, and noted the danger of covering illegal mining operations in the region.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Monday tweeted, “CPJ is extremely concerned by reports that journalist Dom Phillips went missing while in a reporting trip in the Brazilian Amazon. We urge Brazilian authorities to urgently step up efforts to find Phillips.”
The Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in Brazil and the Association of Foreign Correspondents of São Paulo meanwhile called for “immediate action” from Brazilian authorities.
“We also demand that the Brazilian government act strongly to ensure the safety of press professionals, Brazilians and foreigners, who work in that region and who have suffered several threats to their work in this area of conflict of irregular mining,” they said in a statement.
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