Dom Phillips: Journalist who braved danger to chronicle Amazon deforestation

Dom Phillips, a British journalist based in Brazil who was a leading chronicler of the devastating environmental effects of deforestation in the Amazon, has died in the remote Javari Valley region of western Brazil aged 57.

The journalist and Bruno Araújo Pereira, an expert on the country’s indigenous people, were last seen alive on 5 June. Police announced human remains had been found last Friday and said a fisherman had confessed to killing both of them. The pair had been travelling along the Itaquai River in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, known in recent years for growing violence by illegal fishermen, loggers and drug dealers.

Phillips, a one-time music journalist in England, had lived in Brazil since 2007. He was a versatile reporter who wrote about politics, poverty and cultural developments in Brazil. As a contributor to The Washington Post from 2014 to 2016, he covered the country’s preparations for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Phillips was particularly drawn to the plight of Brazil’s natural world and the indigenous people living deep in the Amazon rainforest. He travelled throughout the country to report on deforestation, as farmers and other commercial interests destroyed vast swathes of Brazil’s once-dense rainforests. He led The Guardian’s investigation of large-scale cattle ranches established on cleared forest land.

“Dom is one of the most ethical and courageous journalists I know,” Andrew Fishman, an American reporter working in Brazil, told the Latin American news service CE Noticias Financieras. “He has always been extremely rigorous in his work and incisive in his analysis.”

In 2019, Phillips asked Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro about deforestation in the countryside. Bolsonaro, who favours mining and other commercial development, responded: “First, you have to understand that the Amazon belongs to Brazil, not to you.”

A video of the exchange became a sensation among Bolsonaro’s supporters, who used it to bolster their view that the president was being attacked by the media.

“Dom was very shaken by that video,” Fishman said. “He felt that it put a target on his back and made his work more difficult.”

In 2018, Phillips joined Pereira and photographer Gary Calton on a 17-day journey into the Amazon – almost 600 miles by boat and a 45-mile trek on foot – as Pereira, then a government official, attempted to make contact with isolated indigenous groups.

Phillips takes notes as he talks with indigenous people at the Aldeia Maloca Papia, Roraima State, Brazil, in November 2019

“As he squats in the mud by a fire,” Phillips wrote in an evocative story for The Guardian, “Bruno Pereira, an official at Brazil’s government indigenous agency, cracks open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats its brains for breakfast as he discusses policy.”

Phillips dubbed some of the people he met “the ninjas of this forest, [who] are as protective of it as they are at home in it. They fish piranhas and hunt, butcher and cook birds, monkeys, sloth and wild boar to eat.”

When a local man was asked whether agricultural development and mining should be permitted in the indigenous territories, he said: “No. We take care of our land.”

Phillips returned several times to the Javari Valley to conduct research for a book tentatively titled “How to Save the Amazon”. He received a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to help underwrite his reporting.

In recent years, the region had become increasingly dangerous, with more than 150 environmental activists killed in Brazil between 2009 and 2020, according to the Latin American journalism project Tierra de Resistentes.

A banner with images of Phillips (left) and Bruno Pereira and the word ‘Justice’ written in Portuguese, during a rally demanding authorities conduct a thorough investigation into the circumstances leading to their deaths, in Brasilia on 19 June

After Phillips and Pereira failed to appear for a scheduled meeting on 5 June, indigenous people reported that a boat was seen following them.

Phillips’s wife, Alessandra Sampaio, called for the Brazilian government to take prompt action to find her husband and Pereira. Brazilian celebrities, including soccer star Pelé, joined the public plea. News organisations such as The Washington Post, The Guardian and The New York Times released an open letter demanding that the Brazilian government “urgently step up and fully resource the effort” to find the men.

When Bolsonaro was informed of their disappearance, he seemed to suggest that they were at fault.

“Anything might happen,” he said. “It could have been an accident. They could have been executed.”

After their remains were found, Bolsonaro said: “That Englishman was disliked in the region … He should have more than redoubled the precautions he was taking. And he decided to go on an excursion instead.”

The statement prompted an outcry in Brazil and abroad. “The victims are not the ones to blame,” one of Bolsonaro’s political opponents, Orlando Silva, said in a tweet.

Phillips returned several times to the Javari Valley to conduct research for a book

Dominic Mark Phillips was born on 23 July 1964, in Bebington, a town near Liverpool. He left college to travel in the 1980s and lived in Israel, Greece, Denmark and Australia, taking odd jobs that included picking fruit, working as a chef and cleaning a meat factory.

He became a devotee of house music and, in the late 1980s, helped found an arts magazine in Bristol. He moved to London in 1990 and worked as a top editor at Mixmag, a publication chronicling house music. He coined the term “progressive house” to describe “a new breed of hard but tuneful, banging but thoughtful, uplifting and trancey British house”.

He left the publication in 1999 to produce documentaries and videos about music. In 2009, he published DJ Superstars Here We Go!, a book described in a Guardian review as, “in part, a memoir of his days reporting on clubs and after-parties awash with champagne, vodka, cocaine and ecstasy”.

Phillips first visited Brazil in 1998. After settling there nine years later, he largely gave up his late-night ways and often rose before dawn to do stand-up paddling on waterways.

“On one level, it’s like being in Europe or America,” he said in a 2008 interview with DMCWorld, a music publication. “On another, it’s utterly different – like stepping into a looking glass world where everything seems the same but is actually upside down, backwards, back to front, whatever … The best thing about the country is the people – they are really open, friendly and positive. They love music. Rich or poor, they do their best to get the most out of life.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include a sister and a brother.

Phillips turned down several prestigious job offers, preferring to stay in Brazil as a freelance writer, contributing to the Financial Times, Bloomberg News and football magazines. He was well known among international journalists and taught English and volunteered in poor neighbourhoods.

“He likes to see the impact of his work on people’s lives,” Cecília Olliveira, a founder of Fogo Cruzado, a website documenting violence in Brazil, said. “He likes to do journalism that changes something, that denounces abuses, that helps protect those who need protection.”

The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy in Brazil contributed to this report

© The Washington Post

Douglas Mateo

Douglas holds a position as a content writer at Neptune Pine. His academic qualifications in journalism and home science have offered her a wide base from which to line various topics. He has a proficiency in scripting articles related to the Health industry, including new findings, disease-related, or epidemic-related news. Apart from this, Douglas writes an independent blog and assists people in living healthy life.