The murders of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were not only a shocking and incalculable loss for their families and all those who loved them and admired their work. They were also a chilling reminder of the perils faced both by journalists and environmental defenders – particularly Indigenous peoples and those working with them – in Latin America.
Seven months have passed since the men were killed in the Javari valley region of the Amazon. On Monday, Brazilian police announced that they had arrested the alleged mastermind. Rubens Villar Coelho, nicknamed Colômbia, was first detained on separate charges last July, when he denied any involvement in the crime. He has been accused of running an illegal fishing operation. Three other men are in custody over the deaths.
Real justice for Mr Phillips and Mr Pereira would mean accountability not only for those who pulled the trigger, but for all those who have made the Amazon a dangerous place – police officers, businessmen or politicians who have turned a blind eye to depredations, or benefited from them.
Journalists are at risk in many places, especially when they challenge powerful interests. This week, the Cameroonian journalist Martinez Zogo was found dead, after his abduction by unknown assailants. But they are in greatest danger in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 30, including Mr Phillips, were killed last year, according to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists – the highest figure ever, and double the number killed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. As the CPJ’s programme director, Carlos Martínez de la Serna, noted: “The cost of attacking or killing a journalist is extremely low … There is never justice.”
Latin America is also the most dangerous region in the world for environmental protectors. A report by Global Witness last autumn found that of the 1,733 land and environmental defenders known to have been killed in the last decade, more than two-thirds died in Latin America, and almost two-fifths were Indigenous. The only thing they did wrong was getting in the way of those exploiting and destroying the natural world.
Under Brazil’s last president, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, agribusiness and extractive industries had free rein. The reduced state presence in the Amazon created not only opportunities for criminals, but also a sense that they were immune to consequences. Thankfully, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has pledged to undo the damage wreaked by his predecessor and work towards zero deforestation of the rainforest. On his first day in office he signed seven executive orders to protect the environment. He has appointed the country’s first minister for Indigenous peoples, Sônia Guajajara, and last week he met the Yanomami people in the Amazon state of Roraima, who have been enduring a humanitarian and health catastrophe after the invasion of their land by thousands of illegal miners.
Marina Silva, the environment minister, has said that the “enraged mob” who launched the insurrection in Brasília earlier this month included pro-Bolsonaro militants with links to illegal deforestation, mining, land-grabbing and fishing, angry that their era of “guaranteed impunity” was over. There is suspicion that more powerful forces behind the riot share a similar agenda. The threat is not over, and taking on such ruthless opponents is risky. It is also, unquestionably, necessary.