No sign of life for more than four days: A British journalist and his companion disappeared during an expedition to the most remote corners of the Brazilian rainforest. Local experts fear the worst – especially since there were threats in advance.

Two men – a renowned British journalist and a Brazilian expert on tribal peoples – have disappeared without a trace in the most remote corners of the Amazon. Shortly before, they are said to have been threatened by an illegal fisherman. The search for Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira is ongoing, the authorities are puzzled, the families are desperate. Hopes of finding the two alive fade with each passing day.

Phillips and Pereira: missing on the way back

The 57-year-old Phillips, who has been reporting from Brazil for more than 15 years as a freelance journalist for the British “Guardian” and the US newspapers “New York Times” and “Washington Post”, among others, has been missing since Monday. Together with 41-year-old Pereira, a former Brazilian government official charged with protecting isolated Amazon tribes, he traveled to the remote rivers and rainforests of the vast Javari Valley in Amazonas state, near the Peruvian border, for a book project.

According to their indigenous contacts, the Guardian reports, the two left by boat and reached their destination, Lago do Jaburu, on Friday evening.

On Sunday, two days after their arrival, they should have started their return journey – which actually shouldn’t have taken more than three hours. According to the BBC, residents of the small community of São Gabriel saw Phillips and Pereira still sailing downstream in their boat. When nothing could be seen of the two even after eight hours, a search party was sent out. However, it was unsuccessful, as were later groups organized by indigenous people and environmental activists.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro apparently shares responsibility for missing persons

“We need an urgent search operation. We need the police, we need the army, we need the fire brigade, we need civil protection. We have no time to waste,” said Beto Marubo, a well-known local tribal leader, according to the Guardian. The British newspaper itself is “very concerned” and is in contact with the British Embassy in Brazil and national and local authorities.

Federal police officers from Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, worked on the case; the Navy dispatched a team of ten to the men’s last known whereabouts. But demands for the Brazilian army to take part in the search have so far remained unfulfilled. Because they are waiting for approval from the very top. “We are waiting for one of the responsible ministries to take action,” a military spokesman said. Because the search isn’t gaining momentum, an indigenous rights group has already filed a lawsuit to request quick help, the Washington Post reports.

The human rights organization Human Rights Watch also expressed concern and called on the authorities to take action. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula tweeted: “Phillips interviewed me for The Guardian in 2017. I hope they are found soon and that they are safe and sound.”

The Washington Post writes that Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, apparently blames the missing persons themselves: “Two people in a boat, in a completely wild region like this, is an adventure you shouldn’t go on.” After all, “anything can happen”.

Threats from poachers: “They were certainly attacked”

Phillip’s family has since appealed to the authorities on several occasions, the BBC reports. “In the forest, every second counts, every second could mean the difference between life and death,” said Alessandra Sampaio, Phillip’s wife. In the statement, the family expressed their hope that their disappearance was due to a breakdown in their boat. But that is unlikely: According to media reports, they had enough fuel on board, they both knew the area and in the event of a transport breakdown they would have been found long ago.

According to the Washington Post, the western part of the state is a “lawless region”. Under President Bolsonaro, illegal mining, fishing and hunting have increased in the Amazon region, while criminal gangs are plundering resources and destroying forests. The local indigenous peoples, according to the New York Times, have now begun to secure their areas independently – which in turn has exacerbated the conflict with looters.

“They were certainly attacked,” Eliesio Marubo, lawyer for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, told the US newspaper. Whether by poachers or indigenous people is another question.

According to the NGO Instituto Socioambiental, around 6,300 indigenous people from 26 different groups live in the region, 19 of them incommunicado. They have become more aggressive in recent years – especially after the murder of the indigenous protection officer Maxciel Pereira dos Santos in 2019.

As the “New York Times” writes, although violent clashes in the Amazon region are not uncommon, they are usually limited to fights between the locals themselves. According to data, 139 environmental activists were killed between 2009 and 2020 – but journalists or government officials were very rarely among the victims.

Phillips and Pereira are said to have been in contact with Orlando Possuelo, an activist for indigenous peoples’ rights. According to Possuelo, the two clashed with an illegal fisherman. The argument with the apparently armed man was recorded on film and presented to the authorities, as reported by the “Washington Post”. Possuelo went looking for the missing himself. Indigenous people reported to him that they had just seen the fisherman’s boat paved. “And from then on I had no hope,” Possuelo told the newspaper.

Suspicious fisherman arrested

Brazilian authorities are said to have arrested a suspect on Wednesday. Six people were questioned and one arrested, police and military officials said at a press conference. However, it is still unclear whether the suspect is directly connected to the case. According to the New York Times, it was one of the fishermen who threatened Phillips and Pereira.

According to investigators, the suspect was arrested during a random check for carrying drugs and ammunition for an assault rifle. Witnesses said they saw the man chasing Phillips and Pereira’s boat. But “we have not yet made any connection between him and the disappearance,” said Amazonas State Police Chief Carlos Mansur.

Sources: “The Guardian”; “Washington Post”; BBC; “New York Times”; with AFP