LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – British journalist Dom Phillips’ quest to unravel the mysteries of preserving Brazil’s Amazon was cut short this month when he was killed along with a colleague in the heart of the forest he held dear became. Some of his discoveries may yet see the light of day.
Phillips secured a year-long grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation in 2021 to write a book that builds on previous research. By June he had written several chapters.
“Dom’s book project was at the forefront of environmental reporting in Brazil. It was extremely ambitious, but he had the experience to pull it off,” said Andrew Fishman, a close friend and journalist at The Intercept. “We cannot allow his assassins to kill his vision as well.”
Phillips’ disappearance and then confirmed death has prompted calls for justice from Brazil and abroad from actors, musicians and athletes, along with calls for help in support of his wife. Phillips would be stunned to learn that current and former British Prime Ministers are worried about his fate.
He wrote about Brazil for 15 years, initially covering the oil industry for Platts, later freelance for the Washington Post and the New York Times, and then regularly for The Guardian. He was versatile but attracted to features about the environment, which became his passion.
Phillips often hiked in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca Forest National Park and was in his element on his paddleboard on Copacabana Beach: soaring above nature and observing. He could be breaking news to friends out of the blue about how he spotted a ray with a 3ft wingspan, reflecting a miracle more common in children than 57-year-old men, and he brought that spirit to his reporting.
He was curious and thorough, whether it was analyzing studies on the projected decline in rainfall in the agricultural heartland caused by deforestation in the Amazon or tracking down the driving test administrator who spotted a man disguised as his own mother to take your exam. He recalled one editor telling him, “You spend too much time researching news.”
He also earned respect from local correspondents for his humility, often sharing the stories of others rather than blowing his own horn.
Phillips accidentally took the spotlight during a television press conference in July 2019. Faced with increasing deforestation and the fact that the environment minister had met with loggers, Phillips asked President Jair Bolsonaro how he planned to demonstrate Brazil’s commitment to protecting the Amazon.
“First you have to understand that the Amazon belongs to Brazil, not to you, okay? That’s the first answer to that,” Bolsonaro replied. “We have preserved more than the whole world. No country in the world has the moral standing to talk to Brazil about the Amazon.”
Within weeks, man-made fires ravaged the Amazon, drawing global criticism, and the clip of Bolsonaro’s testy response went viral among his supporters as proof that the far-right leader would not be admonished by foreign invaders. Phillips then received abuse, but no threats.
That didn’t stop him from attending rallies to seek the opinion of die-hard Bolsonaro supporters. He was alarmed by Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire environmental policies, but was aware that previous left-wing governments also had patchy balance sheets, often focused on agribusiness, and built a massive hydroelectric dam that caused catastrophic local damage while significantly reducing output underbid. His loyalty was to the environment and those who depended on it for survival.
Deforestation in the Amazon has reached a 15-year high, and some climate experts are warning that the destruction is bringing the biome near a tipping point, after which it will begin irreversible degradation to the tropical savannah.
Phillips spoke to farmers who deny climate change despite extreme weather threatening their crops. But he returned from a recent trip in good spirits after meeting some biodiversity reintroductions in their country, said Rebecca Carter, his agent. After his disappearance, video on social media showed him speaking to an indigenous group and explaining that he had come to learn how they organize and deal with threats.
“I’m grateful to have lived with a man who loved people,” his wife Alessandra Sampaio told O Globo newspaper. “He wasn’t talking about villains. He didn’t want to demonize anyone. His mission was to clarify the complexity of the Amazon.”
Phillips was also a crisp writer with an ear for readability. A 2018 story for The Guardian had one of journalism’s most dramatic introductions:
“Bruno Pereira, an official with Brazil’s Indigenous Authority, wears only shorts and flip-flops, crouches in the mud by a fire, cracks open a monkey’s boiled skull with a spoon and eats his brain for breakfast while debating politics.”
Phillips described his 17-day journey with Pereira through the remote indigenous territory of the Javari Valley at the time as “the most physically grueling thing I’ve ever done”. This June he was in the same region with Pereira – it was to be one of his last reporting trips for his book – when they were killed together.
Three suspects are in custody, the police speak of a confession. Pereira had previously arrested people who fished illegally within indigenous territory and received threats.
Phillips, meanwhile, had also been preoccupied with risks to his future career, betting on a book with tight travel expenses and praying it would get traction. He had put newspaper work aside to concentrate on that.
“I’m a freelancer with nothing but one book in my life and not even enough to make a living from it for next year while I write it,” he told the AP in a private exchange in September. “Not so much all the eggs in the same basket, but the whole chicken coop.”
He and Sampaio had moved to the northeastern city of Salvador. He was charged by changing the scene and teaching English to children from poor communities. They had started adopting a child.
Sampaio told the AP that she doesn’t know what will become of her husband’s book, but she and his siblings want it to be published — whether just the four chapters already written or others that were completed with outside help. Phillips’ optimistic message — that the Amazon can be preserved with the right measures — could still reach the world.
“We would very much like to find a way to recognize the important and essential work of Dom,” wrote Margaret Stead, his publisher at Manilla Press, in an email.
The title of the book was How to Save the Amazon. Bolsonaro has balked at the idea that it needs to be saved, saying about 80% of Brazil’s stake is intact and offering to fly foreign dignitaries over its vast wealth. But Phillips knew the view differed from the forest floor; In many seemingly pristine areas, large hardwood trees have been cut down to scarcity. His companions, traveling through the Javari Valley, celebrated when they came across one.
“The Amazon is a lot less pristine and protected than most people think, and a lot more threatened than people think,” he wrote to the AP in September.
He remarked, with a touch of intrigue, that he had recently visited a protected jungle area full of massive trees. Places like this, he said, are usually inaccessible.
And where is this sacred ground?
“You can read it in the book,” he wrote, “when it comes out.”
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