Journalism from the center of the world

On the forest ground: Dom Phillips interviews Indigenous Yanomami people in Papiú Village, Roraima, in 2019. Photo: João Laet/AFP

Let’s start with the good news for a change. The Instituto Dom Phillips will soon be launched by the murdered journalist’s widow, Alessandra Sampaio. This NGO will focus on education, stressing the value of the Amazon and its people. This move to carry forward Dom’s legacy is an expression of hope, idealism and an indomitable human spirit that refuses to be bowed by a horrendous crime and the ongoing assault against indigenous people by powerful business and political interests.

This is all the more remarkable because the prevailing trends in Brazil and the world are in the opposite direction. The forest, indigenous rights and journalistic freedom are all under assault. That much is obvious from the dire developments in Brasilia, where the agriculture and mining lobby is using its power in Congress, the Supreme Court and the government to hold-up demarcations of indigenous land, resurrect the historically unjust “Marco Temporal” law, and launch a new attempt to permit mining on indigenous land.

June 5 will mark two years since the killings of Dom and the indigenous expert Bruno Pereira on the Itaquaí River in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Justice has yet to be done.

Prosecutors have charged three local fishers – Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, nicknamed Pelado; his brother Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, or Dos Santos; and Jefferson da Silva Lima with homicide. But their trial has been repeatedly held up and was, in April, postponed once again.

The suspected ringleader, Ruben Dario da Silva Villar – known locally by his nickname “Colombia” – has been arrested but not charged in connection with the murder. Instead, he and one other alleged accomplice are accused of cross-border smuggling.

Investigations are also underway into at least two local politicians, but no arrests have been made. On last year’s anniversary of the killings, Reporters Without Borders lamented the slow pace of justice in Brazil. The same message looks likely this year.

Crossroads: the entrance to the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, where Dom and Bruno were murdered, sits at the confluence of the Ituí and Itaquaí Rivers. Photo: Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress

Impunity is a scourge not just in Brazil but the modern world. The killers of environmental defenders, such as Bruno, and environmental journalists, such as Dom, are rarely brought to justice. For this week’s World Press Freedom Day, Unesco will release a new report on the attacks faced by environment reporters that reveals the scale of the problem. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have previously compiled similar studies.

Reporting on the war against nature may generate fewer headlines than Gaza or Ukraine, but it is also high-risk with little legal protection. Worldwide, several dozen reporters have been killed for covering environment stories over the past 15 years (the latest number will be revealed next Friday). Barely one in ten of the assassins are convicted. Instead, the law appears to be increasingly used against journalists. More than 100 have been arrested for covering environmental protests.

Of course, hot conflict zones are still more perilous. Last year saw 99 killings of reporters and other media workers, up 43% on 2022 and the highest toll since 2015. The vast majority of the victims were Palestinian reporters who, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, appear to have been targeted by Israeli forces.

Without the courage of correspondents to continue working in conflict areas, press organisations warn the world will start to see “zones of silence” where the risks are so great that important stories go unreported. The same can be said about the environment or democracy, both of which are more vulnerable when the truth is choked.

That is why the work of Dom and Bruno – and the countless other murdered reporters, indigenous activists and Earth defenders – must go on. Multiple media organisations, including Sumaúma, have run stories that aim to do this. The Rainforest Journalism Fund has dibursed ‘Dom Phillips grants’ to freelancers and the investigative journalist collaborative Forbidden Stories last year organised more than 50 journalists from 16 news groups to run a simultaneous series of “Bruno and Dom” coverage. Today, a group of journalist friends of Dom, including this author, are putting aside professional rivalries to complete the book he was writing at the time of his death: How to Save the Amazon: Ask the People Who Know.

Instead of being silenced, the voices of forest defenders and communicators – like Bruno and Dom – must be amplified. This is an important part of the mission of SUMAÚMA.

It has never been more important. But whether anyone is listening is another matter altogether.

As we show in this issue of Sumaúma, indigenous people are being ignored and threatened. At this year’s Free Land Camp in Brasilia – the biggest annual gathering of indigenous peoples – photographer Lela Beltrão captured disappointed and angry faces that revealed just how much has changed for the worse over the past year.

The latest article in our Unsustainable Series, by Sílvia Lisboa (text) and João Laet (photos), shows how Brazil’s dominant mining company Vale is taking over conservation land in Pará State for its Cristalino Project for extracting copper and gold. This will involve culling half a million trees. Local activists say the company is working behind the scenes to quell opposition from social movements.

Columnist Sidarta Ribeiro explores the drug war, which he describes as an attack on the poor and plants, with benefits only for army and police leaders. Based on his experience with Costa Rica, he argues the best way to improve public well being is to abolish the military. That opens the way for true development and a “pura vida” (pure life). Wouldn’t that make a welcome change? Kudos to those, such as Alessandra Sampaio and her colleagues, who continue to struggle for the only thing worth fighting for: life.

Resistance: an Indigenous Kayapó man prepares to march at the 20th Free Land Camp, in Brasília. Photo: Lela Beltrão/SUMAÚMA

Text: Jonathan Watts
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Portuguese translation: Denise Bobadilha
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Copyediting and finishing: Natália Chagas
Editorial workflow: Viviane Zandonadi
Editor-in-chief: Talita Bedinelli
Editorial director: Eliane Brum

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