Sunday, July 3

Humanity wages a war against nature and Dom Phillips was killed while trying to explain it.

Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira have died in an undeclared world war against nature and environmental activists. His work is important because so is our planet, the threats to it, and the actions of those who threaten it.

The front line of fire in this war is the Earth’s remaining biodiverse areas: the forests, wetlands and oceans that are essential to the stability of our climate and the planet’s life support system.

The integrity of these systems is under attack by organized crime and criminal governments who want to exploit timber, water and minerals for short-term, often illegal, profits. In many regions, the only thing standing in their way is the indigenous communities and other traditional forest dwellers, supported by civil society organizations, environmental groups and academics.

My friend Dom knew this was a great story. He took a year off in order to investigate and write a bookentitled How to Save the Amazon (How to save the Amazon), and took the risk of traveling to the territory of the bandits of the Yavarí Valley with Bruno, one of the most active and courageous defenders of the Amazon and the one who received the most threats from Brazil. It had to be a book for everyone: accessible and useful, contemplating both solutions and problems. That was typical of Dom, whose journalism It was always oriented towards making the world a fairer, more responsible and conscious place.

In my opinion, this made him a war correspondent of the 21st century, as well as a witness to a crime that probably led to his death. Dom was not an activist. He was a very committed journalist who wanted to find out what was happening and share it with everyone who might be affected. In this case, all of us.

If anything positive can come from news as horrific as the murders of Dom and Bruno, it is more journalists covering this front line of defense for the environment, especially in those regions controlled by leaders aligned with criminal interests.

Dom knew of the threat posed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged illegal logging and mining, has ignored the historical rights of indigenous people over the lands where they livehas attacked environmental groups and cut the budgets and staff of agencies that protect forests and watch over the rights of indigenous people.

Shortly after Bolsonaro won the first round of the 2018 Brazilian presidential election, Dom shared his fears about the fate of the Amazon in a WhatsApp message: “This is a very dark and worrying period and it’s only going to get worse.” wrote. “My feeling is that it’s also going to be more dangerous for journalists.” But his real fear was for the activists who live on the fringes of the Amazon areas where criminals try to invade indigenous territories and protected areas. Dom was sure a victory in the second round would give the thugs the green light to step up their assault. “If he wins, what will life be like in this place? A Bolsonato victory would give them carte blanche to attack anyone who disagrees with his mafia,” he warned. Bolsonaro’s election led Dom to focus his work more on the jungle and the environmentalists who defend it.

Separating the personal and the professional is impossible. Dom as a person was just as important as Dom the journalist. He was very loved by his family and friends. I met him in 2012, shortly after arriving in Brazil, and we hit it off right away. He helped me adjust to my new home and he infected me with his passion for Brazilian music, art, politics and nature. Since he had already been in the country for five years, he seemed to be aware of almost everything. And what he didn’t know made him curious. His interest in the world was like a mental searchlight that was always scanning the horizon. Whether at a press conference or in a bar, if he thought someone had something interesting to say, he would stare at them with his piercing blue eyes and begin a gentle but relentless interrogation.

We connected through Bowie and Björk, and a love of nature and outdoor sports. Going through old WhatsApp messages, many of the stories and photos Dom shared are of spectacular landscapes or wildlife he encountered: rays, whales, turtles and sharks seen during paddling excursions along the Copacabana coast; capuchin monkeys, marmosets and toucans found on walks on the slopes of Rio de Janeiro. With a group of common friends, we went on weekend excursions through the mountains between Teresópolis and Petrópolis, we climbed Pedra da Gávea to enjoy its impressive view of Rio and we climbed the slopes of Itatiaia for its impressive panoramic views. More frequent were the bike rides. First thing in the morning on weekdays, we started the day by cycling up Corcovado, a lung-busting activity that became known as “Christ on a bike”.

He had an intense work rhythm but found time for his friends. In a difficult time for me, Dom’s recipe for blues was a Spotify playlist of Walker Brothers songs, a spaghetti and anchovy pasta recipe, and a barrage of social invites from him and his wife. , Alessandra, to get me out of a pit of misery. We also share happy moments. The most memorable of the countless gatherings were their wedding in Santa Teresa, where Dom and Alessandra radiated love and inspired joyous dances, and my own wedding celebration in London last year, where we asked all guests to bring a word written on a stone instead of a gift. For their gift, Dom and Alessandra chose “Truth.”

That was his motto. Dom was an excellent journalist, meticulously researching and checking any subject he worked on. He covered topics ranging from economics to art, and was a versatile writer, but it was his coverage of the Marianas environmental catastrophe that turned his attention to environmental problems, especially the devastating fires started by farmers and land grabbers in the Amazon rainforest in 2019.

Undeterred and increasingly alarmed by what was happening to the rainforest and its defenders, Dom wrote more and more about the environment and indigenous rights. Last year, he took this commitment a step further by taking a year off to write a book. As usual, she left no loose ends, which meant that her grant money from the Alicia Patterson Foundation soon ran out on reporting trips, so she had to borrow money from her family in England to complete the project. The information trip to the Yavarí Valley was going to be one of the last. He had already been to the remote reserve, the size of Austria, once, in 2018, when he met Bruno. Bruno convinced Dom that attention needed to be focused on forest communities on the front lines of fire. “This isn’t about us,” the stocky, bespectacled man told Dom. “The indigenous are the heroes.”

Dom and Bruno reunited earlier this month for the fateful trip to Javari. Apparently, they fell victim to an ambush on their return and were killed, probably by an illegal fishing and smuggling mafia that had already threatened Bruno because he had helped the indigenous people denounce his crimes. Brazilian authorities were slow to act: police refused to send a helicopter after the two men were reported missing, and the army, which claimed it had the capacity to search for them, wasted more than a day waiting for orders.

The slow response of the army highlights the weakness and mismanagement of the countries. National defense is stuck in the past, too focused on borders and too little on ecosystems. Meanwhile, criminal gangs invade protected and indigenous areas with impunity. The failure of the state to protect forest defenders while giving the green light to illegal resource extraction suggests that the Brazilian government has been captured by criminal interests.

In an election year in Brazil, everything is political. Bolsonaro has said: “Indications point to something perverse being done to them,” but he has also accused Dom and Bruno of undertaking an “adventure” that was “ill-advised.” This is a common tactic in the war for nature. Those who push the extractive agenda often trivialize, denigrate or criminalize land defenders. They try to claim that the protests and denunciations are isolated and unreasonable, rather than an attempt to understand and deal with structural problems on a global scale. When this does not work, intimidation and violence are often used.

The murder of Dom and Bruno is going to intimidate journalists and editors who cover the front lines of the environment, but I hope it inspires rather than deterrence. What happened to Dom and Bruno is not an isolated event: it is part of a global trend. In the last two decades, thousands of environmental and land defenders have been killed around the world. Brazil has been the country with the most murders during that period. Some of the deaths spark a global storm, like those of Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang, and now Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, but most go unreported and uninvestigated. If anything useful can come out of the latest horror, let it be the recognition that these are not isolated cases. Let us journalists examine the patterns that link these crimes, tell unusual stories and try to find solutions to the planet’s problems, as Dom was trying to do.

Translated by Emma Reverter.

  • Jonathan Watts is the Guardian’s environmental editor.
  • A crowdfunding site has been created for the families of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips. You can donate here.

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