Search underway for British journalist, Brazilian expert missing in the Amazon

An Indigenous association in Brazil's Amazon region says that one of its advisers and a British journalist are missing in a remote area near the Peru border. The area has been marked by violent conflicts between fishers, poachers and government agents.

Area has been marked by violent conflicts; pair reportedly threatened during reporting trip

Phillips, right, and a Yanomami Indigenous man walk in the Maloca Papiu region of Brazil, in November 2019. Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira have been reported missing in a remote part of Brazil's Amazon. (Joao Laet/The Associated Press)

A British journalist and an Indigenous affairs expert are missing in a remote part of Brazil's Amazon region, a local Indigenous association said Monday. The area has been marked by violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.

Dom Phillips, who has been a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper, and Bruno Araujo Pereira were last seen at 7 a.m. local time Sunday in the Sao Rafael community, according to the Univaja association of Indigenous people in the Vale do Javari, for which Pereira has been an adviser.

They were returning by boat from the Vale do Javari and bound for the city of Atalaia do Norte, about an hour away, but never showed up.

Pereira, currently on leave from his post with Brazil's Indigenous affairs agency, is one of its most experienced employees operating within the Vale do Javari area. He oversaw the agency's regional office and the co-ordination of isolated Indigenous groups before taking leave. He has received a steady stream of threats from illegal fishermen and poachers, and usually carries a gun.

Univaja said the pair had been threatened during their current reporting trip.

They disappeared while returning from a two-day trip to the Jaburu Lake region, where Phillips interviewed local Indigenous people, according to Univaja. Only the two men were on the boat, according to the association.

Journalist writing book on rainforest's preservation

Phillips is writing a book about preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which awarded him a yearlong fellowship for environmental reporting that ran through January.

The Itaquai River runs through the Vale do Javari region in Amazonas state, Brazil, on the border with Peru. This is the area the pair went missing. (Fabiano Maisonnave/The Associated Press)

The place where they disappeared is the primary access route to and from the Vale do Javari, where several thousand Indigenous people live in dozens of villages. People in the area say that it is highly unlikely they would have gotten lost in that sector.

"He is a cautious journalist, with impressive knowledge of the complexities of the Brazilian environmental crisis," Margaret Engel, the Alicia Patterson Foundation's executive director, wrote in an email. "And he is a beautiful writer and a lovely person. The best of our business."

Brazil's federal public prosecutors said in a statement they have opened an investigation and mobilized the Federal Police, Amazonas state's civil police, the national guard and navy. The latter will co-ordinate search efforts, according to the statement. In a separate statement, the navy said it was dispatching a search-and-rescue team.

The army's footprint and manpower is far greater than the navy's in the region. It didn't respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment about progress as of Monday afternoon.

The Guardian quoted a spokesperson as saying it "is very concerned and is urgently seeking information about Mr. Phillips's whereabouts and condition. We are in contact with the British Embassy in Brazil and local and national authorities to try to establish the facts as soon as possible."

Phillips, who currently resides in Salvador, Bahia, also has contributed to the Washington Post and New York Times.

"I hope they are found soon, that they are fine and safe," former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva posted on Twitter, recalling that Phillips interviewed him in 2017.

Volatile region

The Vale do Javari region has experienced repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents, who have a permanent base in the area, known for having the world's largest population of uncontacted Indigenous people. It is also a major route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border, then smuggled into Brazil to supply local cities or to be shipped to Europe.

In September 2019, an employee of the Indigenous affairs agency was shot dead in Tabatinga, the largest city in the region. The crime was never solved.

"It is extremely important that Brazilian authorities dedicate all available and necessary resources to the immediate realization of searches, in order to guarantee, as soon as possible, the safety of the two men," Maria Laura Canineau, the director of Human Rights Watch in Brazil, said in a statement on Monday.

Journalists working for regional media outlets in the Amazon have been murdered in recent years, though there have been no such cases among journalists from national media nor foreign media. However, there have been several reports of threats, and the press has limited access to several areas dominated by criminal activity including illegal mining, land-grabbing and drug trafficking.