Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira have been killed in an undeclared global war against nature and the people who defend it. Their work mattered because our planet, the threats to it and the activities of those who threaten it matter. That work must be continued.
The frontlines of this war are the Earth’s remaining biodiverse regions – the forests, wetlands and oceans that are essential for the stability of our climate and planetary life-support system.
The integrity of these systems is under attack by organized crime and criminal governments who want to exploit timber, water and minerals for short-term, often illegal profits. In many regions, the only thing standing in their way is Indigenous communities and other traditional forest dwellers, supported by civil society organisations, conservation groups and academics.
My friend Dom knew how important this story was. It is why he took a year off to research a book, How to Save the Amazon, and it is why he took the risk of traveling to the bandit territory of the Javari valley with Bruno, who was one of Brazil’s most effective, courageous and threatened forest defenders. It was to have been a book for everyone: accessible and useful, looking at solutions as well as problems. That was typical of Dom, whose journalism was always aimed at making the world a fairer, more accountable and enlightened place.
To my mind, this made him a 21st century war correspondent as well as a witness to a crime that probably led to his death. Dom was not an activist. He was a journalist’s journalist, who wanted to find out what was happening and share it with everyone who might be affected. In this case, all of us.
If anything positive can come from the mind-numbingly horrendous news, it should be for more journalists to cover this frontline, especially those regions controlled by leaders aligned with criminal interests.
Dom knew the threat posed by the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged illegal logging and mining, dismissed Indigenous land rights, attacked conservation groups, and slashed the budgets and personnel of forest and Indigenous protection agencies.
Shortly after Bolsonaro won the first round of the 2018 Brazilian presidential election, Dom shared his fears about the fate of the Amazon in a WhatsApp message: “This is a very dark and worrying period and it’s only going to get worse,” he wrote to I. “My sense is that it is also going to become more dangerous for journalists.” But his real fear of him was for defenders living on the edge of the bandit areas of the Amazon where criminals were trying to encroach on Indigenous territories and conservation zones. Dom was sure a second-round victory would give thugs a green light to step up their assault. “If he wins, what will living here be like? It’s like carte blanche to attack anyone his mob disagrees with,” he warned. Bolsonaro’s election led Dom to focus more of his work on the rainforest and its defenders.
Separating the personal and the professional is impossible. Dom the individual was as important as Dom the journalist. He was much loved by his family and friends of him. I met him in 2012, soon after I first arrived in Brazil and we immediately hit it off. He helped me adjust to my new home and infected me with his passion for Brazilian music, art, politics and nature. Already in the country for five years, Dom, it seemed, was knowledgeable about just about everything. And what he did not know, he was curious about. His interest in him in the world was like a mental searchlight forever scanning the horizon. Whether in a press conference or a bar, if he thought someone had anything interesting to say, he would fix them with his piercing blue eyes and begin a gentle but relentless interrogation.
We connected through Bowie and Björk, and a love of nature and outdoor sports. Scrolling back through WhatsApp archives, many of the stories and pictures Dom shared are of spectacular views or wildlife he encountered: rays, whales, turtles and sharks seen during standup paddle outings around the coastline of Copacabana; capucins, marmosets and toucans encountered on hillside walks around Rio de Janeiro. With a group of like-minded friends, we made weekend hikes through the mountains between Teresópolis and Petropolis, climbed the Pedra da Gávea to enjoy its stunning view of Rio and trekked up the slopes of Itatiaia for its stunning panoramas. More frequent were the bike rides. Early weekday mornings, we’d start the day with a cycle up to the Corcovado, a lung-busting activity that became known as “Christ on a bike”.
Despite a prodigious work rate, I have found time for his friends. At a tough moment for me, Dom’s prescription for the blues was a Spotify playlist of Walker Brothers songs, a recipe for anchovy paste spaghetti and a barrage of social invitations from him and his wife, Alessandra, to lure me out of a pit of misery . We shared happier times, too. The most memorable of innumerable get-togethers were his wedding party in Santa Teresa, where Dom and Alessandra radiated love and inspired joyous dancing, and my own wedding celebration in London last year, where every guest was asked to bring a word written on a stone instead of a present. For their gift, Dom and Alessandra chose “Truth”.
That was his word. Dom was a consummate journalist, meticulously researching and fact-checking any subject thrown his way. Covering topics from economics to art, he was a versatile writer, but it was his coverage of the Mariana environmental disaster that turned his attention to environmental issues, notably the devastating fires set by farmers and land-grabbers in the Amazon rainforest in 2019.
Undaunted and ever more alarmed by what was happening to the rainforest and its defenders, Dom upped his coverage of the environment and Indigenous rights. Last year, he took this commitment a step further, by taking a year off to write a book. As usual, he left no stone unturned, which meant his grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation was quickly used up on reporting trips, so he had to borrow money from his family in England to complete the project. The reporting trip to the Javari valley was to be one of the last. He had been to the remote reserve, the size of Austria, once before, in 2018, when he had met Bruno. Bruno persuaded Dom that attention needed to be focused on the forest communities on the frontline. “It’s not about us,” the burly, bespectacled man told Dom. “The Indigenous are the heroes.”
The two men reunited earlier this month for a fateful trip to Javari. They appear to have been ambushed and killed on their return, most likely by an illegal fishing and contraband smuggling mafia that had previously threatened Bruno because he had helped Indigenous people to expose their crimes. The Brazilian authorities were slow to act: the police refused to put a helicopter in the air after the two men were reported missing, and the military said it had the capacity to search but wasted more than a day while waiting for orders.
This response by the army highlights how weak and misdirected states have become. National defense is stuck in the past – far too focused on borders and not enough on ecosystems. Meanwhile criminal gangs invade Indigenous and conservation areas with impunity. The failure of the state to defend forest defenders even as it gives a green light to illegal resource extraction suggests the government in Brazil has been captured by criminal interests.
In an election year in Brazil, everything is political. Bolsonaro has said, “The indications are that something wicked was done to them,” but he has also accused Dom and Bruno of taking an “adventure” that was “ill-advised.” This is a common tactic in war for nature. Those pushing the extractive agenda frequently trivialize, denigrate or criminalize land-defenders. They try to claim protests and exposés are isolated and unreasonable rather than an attempt to understand and confront structural problems on a global scale. When that does not work, intimidation and violence can often follow.
The killings will chill journalists and editors covering the environmental frontline, but I hope it will inspire rather than determine. What happened to Dom and Bruno is not a one-off: it is part of a global trend. Over the past two decades, thousands of environment- and land-defenders have been killed worldwide. Brazil has been the most murderous country during that time. Some of the deaths cause a global storm, such as those of Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang, Berta Cáceres and now Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, but most go under-reported and uninvestigated. If anything useful can come from the latest horror, let it be a recognition that these are not isolated cases. Let journalists examine the patterns that link these crimes, let us tell stories off the beaten track, and let us try to find solutions to the planet’s problems, as Dom was trying to do.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism