After the murder of a writer in the Amazon, can his vision survive?

By David Biller

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — British journalist Dom Phillips’ quest to uncover the secrets of preserving the Brazilian Amazon was cut short this month when he and a colleague were killed in the heart of the forest he cherished so much. Some of his discoveries could still see the light of day.

Phillips in 2021 secured a one-year fellowship with the Alicia Patterson Foundation to write a book, building on previous research. By June, he had written several chapters.

“Dom’s book project was at the forefront of environmental reporting in Brazil. It was hugely ambitious, but he had the experience to pull it off,” said Andrew Fishman, a close friend and journalist at The Intercept. “We can’t let his assassins kill his vision as well.”

Phillips’ disappearance and later confirmed death have sparked calls for justice from Brazil and abroad ever since. actors, the musicians and athletes, as well as calls for help to support his wife. Phillips would be stunned to learn that his destiny has troubled former and current British Prime Ministers.

He wrote about Brazil for 15 years, first covering the oil industry for Platts, then freelancing for the Washington Post and New York Times, then contributing regularly to The Guardian. He was versatile, but turned to environmental reporting because it became his passion.

Phillips often hiked in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca Forest National Park, and atop his paddle board on Copacabana Beach, he was in his element: floating above the natural world and observing. He could message friends out of the blue, share news of spotting a stingray with a 3ft wingspan, reflecting a wonder more common among children than 57-year-old men, and he brought that spirit to his reports.

He was inquisitive and thorough, whether analyzing studies of predicted declines in rainfall in the agricultural heartland caused by Amazon deforestation or tracking down the driving test administrator who discovered a man disguised as his own mother to pass his exam. He remembers an editor telling him, “You spend too much time researching news stories.

Among local correspondents, he also won respect for his humility, often sharing other people’s stories rather than sounding his own horn.

Phillips inadvertently claimed the limelight during a televised press conference in July 2019. Seeing increasing deforestation and that the Minister of the Environment had met with loggers, Phillips asked President Jair Bolsonaro how he intended to demonstrate the Brazil’s commitment to protecting the Amazon region.

“First you have to understand that the Amazon is in Brazil, not yours, okay? That’s the first response there,” Bolsonaro retorted. “We have preserved more than the whole world. No country in the world has the morality to talk about the Amazon in Brazil.

In a few weeks, human-caused fires have ravaged the Amazon, drawing worldwide criticism, and the clip of Bolsonaro’s testy response spread among his supporters as proof that the far-right leader would not be reprimanded by foreign intruders. Phillips was then abused, but not threatened.

That hasn’t stopped him from attending rallies to solicit the opinion of hardcore Bolsonaro supporters. He was alarmed by Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire environmental policy, but aware that previous leftist governments also had patchy histories, often dealing with agribusiness and building a massive hydroelectric dam that caused catastrophic local damage while grossly under-delivering. His allegiance was to the environment and those who depended on it for survival.

The deforestation of the Amazon has reached its highest level in 15 years, and some climate experts warn that the destruction is pushing the biome close to a tipping point, after which it will begin irreversible degradation in the tropical savannah.

Phillips spoke to farmers who deny climate change even as extreme weather threatens their crops. But he returned from a recent trip with lifted spirits after meeting some reintroducing biodiversity to their land, said Rebecca Carter, his agent. After his disappearance, a video on social media showed him talking with an indigenous group, explaining that he had come to learn how they organize and deal with threats.

“I am grateful to have coexisted with a man who loved human beings,” his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, told O Globo newspaper. “He didn’t talk about bad guys. He didn’t want to demonize anyone. His mission was to clarify the complexities of the Amazon.

Phillips was also a keen writer with an ear for readability. A 2018 story for The Guardian had one of the most dramatic introductions in journalism:

“Wearing just shorts and flip flops as he crouches in the mud by a fire, Bruno Pereira, an official with Brazil’s government agency for the natives, cuts open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats his brains out for breakfast as he discusses politics.”

Phillips described his 17-day journey with Pereira through the remote indigenous territory of the Javari Valley at this time as “physically the most grueling thing I have ever done”. Last June, he was with Pereira in the same area – this was to be one of his last reporting trips for his book – when they were killed together.

Three suspects are in custody and according to police one confessed. Pereira had previously arrested people who were fishing illegally on indigenous territory and received threats.

Phillips was more concerned about the risks to his professional future, betting on a book with outsized travel expenses and praying it would resonate. He had put aside the newspaper work to concentrate on it.

“I’m a freelancer with nothing but a book in my life and not even enough to live on for the next year while I’m writing it,” he told the AP in an exchange. private in September. “Not so much all the eggs in one basket as the whole chicken coop.”

He and Sampaio had moved to the northeast city of Salvador. He was burdened by the change of scenery and teaching English to children from poor communities. They had started the process of adopting a child.

Sampaio told the AP she doesn’t know what will happen to her husband’s book, but she and her siblings want it published – whether it’s just the four chapters already written or including them. others completed with outside help. Phillips’ optimistic message – that the Amazon can be preserved, with the right actions – could yet reach the world.

“We would love to find a way to honor the important and essential work that Dom was doing,” Margaret Stead, his editor at Manilla Press, wrote in an email.

The title of the book was “How to save the Amazon”. Bolsonaro has bristled at the idea that he needs rescuing, saying around 80% of Brazil’s portion remains untouched and offering to fly foreign dignitaries above its vast abundance. But Phillips knew the view was different from the forest floor; large hardwoods have been felled to scarcity in many seemingly pristine areas. His companions traveling through the Javari Valley celebrated when they encountered one.

“The Amazon is much less pristine and protected than most people think and much more threatened than people realize,” he wrote to the AP in September.

He noted, with a hint of intrigue, that he had recently visited a preserved area of ​​primeval forest full of massive trees. Places like that, he said, were generally inaccessible.

And where is this sacred ground?

“You can read it in the book,” he wrote, “when it comes out.”


Biller is the AP’s Brazilian news director.

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