The Brazilian authorities have deployed tracking teams in the stretch of river where the track of British journalist Dom Phillips, a contributor to the newspaper, was lost on Sunday. Guardian, and indigenist Bruno Pereira, both 57 years old, in the Yavarí Valley. It is a remote area of the Brazilian Amazon that borders Colombia and Peru, and is home to the largest concentration of uncontacted natives in the world. Teams of indigenous people, a helicopter, two boats and a Navy jet ski, as well as divers and police and soldiers trained to move in the jungle, search for any trace that indicates their whereabouts. Phillips and Pereira, who has reported receiving multiple threats in the past, disappeared on their way back from a lookout post in an even more isolated spot in the jungle, where the reporter interviewed indigenous people trying to prevent incursions by poachers and fishermen, loggers and drug traffickers. These indigenous vigilantes consider that, in view of the neglect of the State, they have no choice but to assume the defense of the lands inhabited by their ancestors for centuries.
The police have opened a criminal investigation and are working on the hypothesis that they were attacked, although without ruling out for now that they are lost, the commissioner in charge of the case explained to Reuters. And four local fishermen have been questioned.
Pereira worked for many years for the National Indian Foundation (Funai), the organization in charge of protecting indigenous people, and he was threatened. Relatives of both and several NGOs of indigenous people or that protect native peoples have demanded that the Brazilian authorities urgently deploy a wide search operation. “Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they have to be found. Please, intensify these searches”, Alessandra Sampaio, wife of the English reporter, implored in a video. Pereira’s partner, Beatriz Matos, has stressed that “every minute counts, every untraveled stretch of river and jungle could be where they await rescue.”
Some 25 indigenous people specializing in searches in the jungle have been deployed in the area, while the most active NGOs in that area accuse the Brazilian government “of abandoning its responsibilities in the face of the escalation of violence.”
The Brazilian president has referred to the case in his usual style. “Two people in a boat, in a region like this, completely wild, is an adventure that is not recommended. Anything can happen. They could have had an accident or been executed. Let us pray to God that they be located soon, ”he said. Although the president presented them as a couple of adventurers, both were professional veterans with decades of experience in their trades.
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Phillips and Pereira were last seen sailing down the Itaquí River en route to the city of Atalaia do Norte. Since Sunday there is no trace of them or the boat. Pereira is a veteran expeditionary, accustomed to living for weeks in the jungle, as he explained in an interview for an EL PAÍS report published last May, Threatened: the last isolated tribes of Brazil.
The Brazilian Foreign Ministry has assured that, “in the event that the disappearance was the work of criminal activities, all measures will be taken to bring the perpetrators to justice,” according to a statement.
Pereira received threats for a long time, including death threats. And on the expedition with Phillips they both came across some armed men who had threatened the indigenous guards they had just interviewed. The British journalist photographed them from a distance, according to the person in charge of Univaja, a local NGO with which Pereira collaborates.
Phillips is writing a book on the environment with an international grant, and Pereira is on unpaid leave from his Funai official position, but remains entirely dedicated to protecting the isolated tribes in the Yavarí Valley, a territory as large as Austria suffering from constant invasions. Those who are still there, on the ground, watching over the natives or the environment feel increasingly alone and exposed to all kinds of dangers due to the impunity with which the criminal groups that plunder the jungle and the drug traffickers whose routes they cross it
It is one of those lawless territories that abound in a country the size of Brazil, a situation that Bolsonaro’s arrival in power has aggravated with a discourse that insists that indigenous people and NGOs only hinder economic development. Univaja, the association that brings together the nine indigenous peoples of the Yavarí Valley, the Observatory of Isolated Peoples (OPI) and the APIB, the coordinator of the indigenous peoples, have released a joint statement in which they criticize “the repression of the exercise of journalism and the unpunished threat against the life and actions of officials committed to defending the Constitution”. They recall that in 2019 a Funai employee was murdered in a nearby city and that the surveillance post of this organization has been attacked with weapons eight times in recent times.
Criticism of the slow deployment of vehicles and people to comb the area where the indigenista and the reporter were last seen turned into outrage on social networks this Monday night due to a note from the Amazon military command, which stated that they were fully capable of assuming the mission, but they would only undertake it “if they were activated by superior command.”
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