Amazon Killings: Journalism and the Environment in the Firing Line

By Aidan White, President of the Ethical Journalism Network, Honorary Advisor to the Fetisov Journalism Awards

The murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian human rights campaigner Bruno Pereira has highlighted the deadly threats facing journalists and human rights defenders who are reporting on crime, deforestation, and illegal exploitation of precious environmental resources in the Amazon region of Latin America.

The two men disappeared on June 5 in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory on the border Peru and Colombia. Ten days later their bodies were discovered, buried in the depths of the forest.

According to reports the police were told where the bodies were hidden by one of eight men now under arrest for the killings. Apparently, the two men had discovered an illegal fishing operation.

Their murder is fresh evidence of the lawlessness and corruption that reigns at all levels over much of the Amazon basin and which has been a feature of the winning journalism featured in the Fetisov Journalism Awards in recent years.

According to the human rights group Global Witness murders of Brazil's indigenous land defenders jumped to ten in both 2019 and 2020, compared to just five in the two prior years.

The rising death toll is a stark reminder of the risks in reporting from the Amazon, a vast region rich in stories that highlight global concerns over the human rights of indigenous people and illegal exploitation of natural resources.

Both Phillips and Pereira understood the risks, but like others before them they continued to report from the area because of their commitment to the rights of indigenous people and the fight for development models that can save the rainforest.

The area where Phillips and Pereira were killed is notorious and has seen violent conflicts between fishers, poachers and government agents. Phillips, a freelance reporter for The Guardian, was working on a book telling the story of the indigenous communities living in the Javari Valley.

His colleague Pereira was a well-known and respected advisor to the local community. Representatives and members of six tribes from this remote area packed into an assembly hall six days after his disappearance calling for more urgent action to find the missing men.

But, according to Reuters, the assembly had little doubt about their fate.

"Bruno died as our shield, protecting us and our territory," said Manoel Chorimpa, a Marubo tribesman and organizer for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley.

Pereira was formerly a senior official for Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency Funai, but was fired in 2019, just days after leading a successful operation to destroy an illegal mining operation inside the Yanomami Indian reservation.

His dismissal highlighted the overhaul of the indigenous agency under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has a pro-business bias and it came at a time of increasing of violence and criminal incursions on ancestral land.

Bolsonaro has criticised constitutional protections for indigenous lands as a barrier to development, and the agency’s staff and budget has been cut since he came to power in 2019 making it harder to respond swiftly to reports of illegal logging, mining and poaching, according to Indigenistas Associados, a non-profit advocacy group made up of current and former agency staff.

"Since he took office, President Bolsonaro has really begun supporting and protecting anyone who invades the indigenous territory, be they loggers, fishermen or miners, who now feel they are protected by the state," says Sydney Possuelo, Brazil's leading expert on isolated tribes and a former Funai president.

When he was head of Funai’s isolated Indians division, Pereira helped local people under threat to mark out their ancestral lands and set up fences, guard posts and warning signs, now he was forced to start afresh.

Working with the Indians of the Javari Valley he began a similar job, this time without the protection of the state. He was the perfect companion for Phillips, who needed someone to help open doors to jungle communities as part of the research for his book on sustainable development

But navigating the murky and dangerous undergrowth of crime and exploitation that surrounds much of the economic activity in the region is a dangerous business.

In 2020 a consortium of journalists from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela highlighted this in their award-winning work investigating violence against environmental activists defending the jungles, mountains, forests and rivers of Latin America.

Their project, Land of Resistance, was one of the winners in the Environmental category of the Fetisov Journalism Awards. The project comprised 29 investigative stories in three languages and included a database compiling 2,367 attacks over 11 years in the ten countries.

The reports highlighted attacks on ethnic minorities, including 17 incidents involving indigenous communities and three more from Afro-descendent peoples defending their lands from the advance of mining interests, oil exploitation, roads, hydroelectric dams, drug trafficking and the illegal timber trade.

The centrepiece was a section of 16 reports investigating violence against leaders in the Amazon involving six countries that share the world's largest continuous rainforest.

In 2020 another FJA winner exposed corporate neglect in the gold-mining region of the Peruvian Amazon. The report by investigative journalist Paula Dupras Dobias revealed the scandal of wildcat gold mining and how illegal mines have devastated the region, leaving large swathes of it poisoned and stripped bare. The report led a major Swiss corporation to halt all imports from artisanal mines in the region.

There was further recognition this year with an award to a team of reporters from Brazil and Ecuador whose powerful series Dispatches from the Amazon Under Pressure highlighted the impact of deforestation and its role in fuelling climate change.

And another winner in the 2021 awards is Karla Mendes from Brazil for her story Déjà Vu as Palm Oil Industry Brings Deforestation, Pollution to Amazon which exposes the downside of palm oil plantation and its impact on the Tembé people of the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve in Pará state.

All of this is, seen in the context of the tragic killings of Phillips and Pereira, provides further evidence of the vital and continuing role journalism must play in the region to expose wrongdoing, give voice to indigenous people and to ensure that governments and the business community deliver on their promises of action to save the environment.