It is now several days since the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira vanished in an extremely remote part of the Amazon. There is every reason to be seriously concerned for their welfare. They have not been seen since they embarked, early on Sunday morning, upon a short river trip. They had been threatened days before by armed men, and Mr Pereira had earlier received a written threat. Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders and others associated with Indigenous communities; the killings of the labour leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes and the American nun Dorothy Stang are particularly notorious, but there have been many more since. Journalists are also vulnerable.
On Wednesday, police in the Javari region of Amazonas state announced that they had arrested one suspect and detained four witnesses in connection with the disappearance. Mr Phillips, a longtime Guardian contributor who has also written for the Washington Post, New York Times and Financial Times, has travelled extensively in the Amazon region to report on the crisis facing Brazil’s rainforests and its Indigenous communities and is working on a book about conserving the environment. Mr Pereira is a former government official who has spent years working to protect isolated tribes.
Yet overall the response from the Brazilian authorities has been at best sluggish and underwhelming. A helicopter – essential in searching such a vast area – was not employed until Tuesday morning. A criminal investigation was not opened until later that day. Only a handful of troops appear to be involved in the search, in a region with plentiful military resources. This minimal response is wholly inadequate. Human Rights Watch, the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recent Contact Indigenous Peoples and many others have been pressing from the start for swift and committed action by the Brazilian government. A full search-and-rescue operation is needed, with real backing at the national level.
Unfortunately, the president, Jair Bolsonaro, has shown little interest in an appropriate response. Worse still, having taken two days to address the disappearance, he appeared to blame the men: “Quite frankly, two people in just one boat, in that kind of region, absolutely wild, is an adventure that isn’t recommendable for anyone. Anything might happen. It could have been an accident. They could have been executed,” he said.
This is not merely about two individuals, as loved and respected as they are. Nor is the context merely that deforestation in the Amazon has reached a record high under Mr Bolsonaro, who has weakened environmental protections and Indigenous land rights since taking office in 2019, but also that he has trampled human rights and flouted the rule of law. Criminal gangs appear increasingly emboldened to break the law, damage the rainforest and carry out violence with a sense of impunity.
The government is highly unlikely to change course without international pressure. That must first be brought to bear to produce an adequate response to this disappearance. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, has said he will look into the case. The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, has already urged action. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, should press the Brazilian government to scale up search efforts, as a matter of urgency. Too much time has been lost already. No more must be squandered.