A British journalist and a Brazilian indigenous expert have disappeared in a remote region of the Amazon rainforest after receiving threats, authorities and indigenous rights groups said on Monday, stoking fears for their safety.
Veteran foreign correspondent Dom Phillips, 57, went missing while researching a book with respected indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Javari Valley in Brazil’s Amazon, the Guardian newspaper, for which Phillips has been a long-time contributor, said.
The couple had traveled by boat to Lake Jaburu in northern Amazonas state, near Brazil’s border with Peru, and were due to return to the city of Atalaia do Norte around 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, two human rights groups said in a statement.
The men had “received threats on the ground” last week, the groups said, the Union of Indigenous Organizations of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA) and the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI).
They gave no further details, but Pereira, an expert with Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency FUNAI with in-depth knowledge of the region, regularly received threats from loggers and miners trying to invade the lands of isolated indigenous groups.
FUNAI told AFP that it is cooperating with local authorities in the search. It added that Pereira was on leave from the agency “to pursue personal interests”.
Phillips and Pereira had traveled to the region around a FUNAI surveillance base and reached Lake Jaburu Friday night, UNIVAJA and OPI said.
They began the return journey early Sunday, stopping in the municipality of Sao Rafael, where Pereira had scheduled a meeting with a local leader to discuss indigenous patrols to combat the “intense invasions” that have been taking place on their land, the said Groups.
When the community leader failed to arrive, the men decided to continue to Atalaia do Norte, which took about a two-hour drive, they said.
They were last sighted shortly thereafter near the municipality of Sao Gabriel, just downstream from Sao Rafael.
The couple were traveling in a new boat with 70 liters of petrol – “enough for the trip” – and were using satellite communications equipment, the groups said.
The federal prosecutor announced that they had sent the police to investigate and initiated a search operation, which was being led by the Brazilian Navy.
Two initial searches by Indigenous locals “with extremely good knowledge of the region” have found no trace of the men, UNIVAJA and OPI said.
According to the newspaper O Globo, two fishermen were arrested by the police on Monday night, including a person with whom the two men had an appointment. The newspaper did not say if it was the local guide in Sao Rafael who never showed up.
– ‘Time of Essence’ –
The families of the missing men have raised the alarm, along with high-profile organizations and figures including ex-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“We are imploring the Brazilian authorities to dispatch the National Guard, Federal Police and all forces at their disposal to locate our beloved cathedral,” Phillips’ sister’s partner, Paul Sherwood, wrote on Twitter.
“He loves Brazil and has dedicated his career to reporting on the Amazon rainforest. We understand that time is of the essence.”
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists and the Association of Correspondents of the Brazilian Foreign Press (ACIE) also expressed their concern and urged the authorities to act “immediately”.
“I hope they are well, safe and found quickly,” tweeted Lula, the front runner in Brazil’s October presidential election, against far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro – who has been accused of fueling invasions by indigenous countries in the Amazon for mining and agribusiness.
The Guardian said in a statement it was “very concerned” about Phillips, whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and other leading media outlets.
“We condemn all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers. We hope Dom and those he traveled with are safe and will be found soon.”
Phillips, who is married and lives in the northeastern city of Salvador, previously accompanied Pereira to the Javari Valley for a story in The Guardian in 2018.
The 85,000 square kilometer reserve is home to around 6,300 indigenous people from 26 groups, including a large number with virtually no contact with the outside world.
The FUNAI base there, which was set up to protect the indigenous people, has been attacked several times in recent years. In 2019, a FUNAI officer was shot dead there.
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