Phillips, a seasoned journalist who has written extensively about Brazil’s most marginalized groups and the devastation that criminal figures are wreaking on the Amazon, traveled with indigenous expert Pereira to research conservation efforts in the remote Javari Valley.
Although nominally under government protection, the Javari Valley, like other indigenous lands in Brazil, suffers from illegal mining, logging, hunting, and international drug trafficking, often leading to violence as criminals face with environmentalists and indigenous rights activists.
Between 2009 and 2019, more than 300 people were killed in Brazil as a result of land and resource conflicts in the Amazon, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), citing data from the Pastoral Land Commission, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Catholic Church.
Indigenous Brazilians have often been the targets of such attacks and have also been persecuted. In early January, three environmentalists from the same family were found dead in the northern Brazilian state of Para, who had developed a project to populate the local water with turtles. The police investigation is ongoing.
Earlier this month, Bolsonaro signed an environmental decree that sets higher penalties for deforestation, illegal logging, burning, fishing and hunting, and the government said it was “an important step in environmental legislation.”
And while Bolsonaro’s administration had previously deployed the country’s military to protect the Amazon from illegal logging and land clearing, Muñoz says the move ultimately sidelined the country’s conservation agency IBAMA, resulting in a loss of environmental knowledge.
IBAMA and the president’s office did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
Roberto Liebgott, coordinator of the Southern Region of the Missionary Council of Brazil, an indigenous rights group affiliated with the Catholic Church, points to cultural biases and stereotypes that underlie criminal activity in the Amazon.
At least two narratives fuel the violence, Liebgott told CNN: “The first one has to do with the idea that indigenous peoples don’t have rights like other people, perpetuating the narrative of ‘savages’ and, as such, they can be attacked. attacked, exiled or killed.”
The second, he says, “has to do with the narrative that indigenous peoples don’t need land and that everything is done for them.”
Munoz says this is one of the many reasons why his and Pereira’s work is so important and why their disappearance is so heartbreaking.