Jair Bolsonaro’s demolition of Brazil’s Indigenous and environmental protection services and “surrender of the Amazon to crooks” played a direct role in the murders of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, the politician leading a congressional inquiry into the crime has claimed.
One month after the British journalist and Brazilian Indigenous advocate were killed on the River Itaquaí, three men are in custody: two local fishermen and a third man called Jeferson da Silva Lima.
Federal police initially ruled out the involvement of a more powerful criminal mastermind in a lawless region at the heart of South America’s drug trade, although investigators are examining whether the crime was an ordered assassination.
Whatever the truth, the politician spearheading a senate investigation into the killings claimed Brazil’s far-right president also bore significant blame for having crippled the protection agencies that might have kept the men safe during their trip into the remote Javari Valley region.
“The government is a direct accomplice and participant in the murders of both men,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, an opposition senator from the Amazon state of Amapá.
“The Bolsonaro government’s policy of dismantling and destructuring [Indigenous and environmental safeguards] is directly responsible for the point the Javari Valley has reached.”
Rodrigues, who visited the region last week, recalled how Bolsonaro once publicly scolded Phillips when the British journalist challenged him over soaring deforestation. “The first thing you need to understand is that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” the Brazilian nationalist told Phillips, a longtime Guardian contributor.
The senator claimed Bolsonaro had relinquished control of the Amazon to gangs of illegal miners, hunters and fishermen with links to organised crime, paving the way for the kind of violence that claimed the lives of Phillips and Pereira.
“Bolsonaro has surrendered the Amazon to crooks, to crime – and what happened to Dom and Bruno illustrates this,” the senator said, denouncing the systematic wrecking of Brazil’s Indigenous and environmental agencies since Bolsonaro took office in 2019.
“There is no more state presence in the Javari Valley region. The Javari Valley no longer has [the environmental agency] Ibama to curb environmental crime. [The Indigenous agency] Funai and the few Indigenous specialists who remain are facing death threats and intimidation. There are insufficient numbers of federal police there and the Brazilian army also lacks sufficient troops,” Rodrigues said.
“The region has been surrendered to illegal fishing, illegal hunting [and] illegal mining – all of which is connected to narco-trafficking,” claimed the senator. “Jair Bolsonaro spoke about not surrendering the Amazon – but he has surrendered it to the worst kind of banditry there is.”
Brazil’s presidency did not respond to a request to comment on the claims.
Members of Rodrigues’s nine-senator committee flew to Atalaia do Norte, the riverside portal to the Javari Valley, last week to gather testimony for its two-month investigation.
The politician said he was shocked by the “total absence of state presence and authority” there. He feared further bloodshed as heavily armed environmental criminals continued advancing into the supposedly protected Javari Valley Indigenous territory to plunder its natural riches. The vast expanse of rivers and jungle, on which Phillips was reporting when he was killed, is home to the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes on Earth.
“The region is on the brink of a serious humanitarian collapse,” Rodrigues warned.
“These criminals are coming in armed with rifles and when they encounter the isolated peoples, the isolated people will react to them. Given that the [criminals] are far better armed, they will promote a tremendous bloodbath. There’s no state to protect the Indigenous people there.”
Rodrigues conceded his committee would have only a “palliative” effect given Bolsonaro’s opposition to environmental and Indigenous protections. “While Jair Bolsonaro continues to govern a change of paradigm is inconceivable,” admitted Rodrigues, who hoped voters would end “the Bolsonaro nightmare” in October’s presidential election. Polls suggest Bolsonaro will lose that vote to former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose campaign Rodrigues is helping coordinate.
However, the senator said the commission would make concrete recommendations, including calling for the removal of the Bolsonaro-appointed head of Funai and “a determined anti-crime offensive” in the Javari Valley.
Rodrigues recalled feeling impotence at the murders of Phillips and Pereira and the realisation the region had been “conquered by crime”.
“It was as if the Brazilian football team had just conceded the fifth goal in a World Cup match and didn’t have the slightest hope of fighting back.” he said.
He felt indignation at Bolsonaro’s attempt to smear the two dead men, by insinuating they were responsible for their own deaths having undertaken an ill-advised “adventure”. “But at the same time it made me feel great courage to fight even harder against him. Bolsonaro is …… one of the worst fascists humanity has ever produced,” Rodrigues said.
Phillips had reported extensively on Brazil’s dismantling of environmental and Indigenous safeguards since Bolsonaro’s conservative predecessor, Michel Temer, took office after the 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.
“At the Funai base in Atalaia do Norte, the town nearest the [Javari] reserve, telephones are cut off and the internet has stopped working. Contracts for fuel and other supplies are being wound up amid rumours it will close,” Phillips wrote in 2018.
The following year he travelled to the Yanomami territory to report on how thousands of illegal goldminers had stormed those lands. “The current … invasion worsened after Bolsonaro took office,” Phillips reported.
Rodrigues said it was crucial the work of Phillips and Pereira be kept alive. “We cannot allow them to be forgotten … Society – not just Brazilian society or Amazonian society – but global society must keep its eyes on the Amazon … We must always stand up and make ourselves heard.”