British journalist Dom Phillips’ quest to unravel the secrets of preserving the Brazilian Amazon was cut short this month when he and a colleague were murdered in the heart of the forest he so cherished. Some of his discoveries may yet see the light of day.
Phillips was awarded a one-year fellowship with the Alicia Patterson Foundation in 2021 to write a book, building on previous research. By June, he had written several chapters.
“Dom’s book project led the way in environmental reporting in Brazil. It was extremely ambitious, but he had the experience to make it happen,” said Andrew Fishman, a close friend and journalist at The Intercept. “We can’t let his killers kill his vision too.”
Phillips’s disappearance and subsequently confirmed death have sparked calls for justice from Brazil and abroad from actors, musicians and athletes, along with calls for help to support his wife. Phillips would be stunned to learn that his fate has left current and former British Prime Ministers in trouble.
He wrote about Brazil for 15 years, early for Platts on the oil industry, later as a freelancer for the Washington Post and the New York Times, then a regular contributor to The Guardian. He was versatile, but was drawn to features about the environment when it became his passion.
Often hiking in the Tijuca Forest National Park in Rio de Janeiro, Phillips, atop his paddleboard on Copacabana Beach, was in his element, floating above the natural world and observing. He could just casually message friends and share news of spotting a ray with a wingspan of 3 feet, a reflection of 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 he was analyzing studies of the expected decline in agricultural rainfall caused by deforestation in the Amazon or tracking down the driving test administrator who discovered a man disguised as his own mother to pass her exam. lay. He recalled an editor who told him, “You spend too much time researching news stories.”
He also earned respect from local correspondents for his humility, often sharing the reports of others rather than twirling his own horn.
Phillips inadvertently claimed the spotlight during a televised press conference in July 2019. Phillips noted that deforestation is on the rise and that the environment minister had met with loggers, and asked President Jair Bolsonaro how he planned Brazil’s deployment for the protection of the Amazon region.
“First, you have to understand that the Amazon belongs to Brazil, not yours, okay? That’s the first answer,’ replied Bolsonaro. “We have kept 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 worldwide criticism, and the clip of Bolsonaro’s snappy response spread 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 ask the opinion of die-hard Bolsonaro supporters. He was alarmed by Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire environmental policies, but remembered that previous left-wing governments also held flawless records, often focusing on agribusiness and the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam that caused disastrous local damage while delivering vastly underpowered. His loyalty was to the environment and those who depended on it for survival.
Amazon deforestation has reached a 15-year peak, and some climate experts warn that the destruction is pushing the biome to a tipping point, after which it will begin irreversible degradation to tropical savanna.
Phillips spoke to farmers who deny climate change, even as extreme weather threatens their crops. But he returned from a recent trip with a high spirits after meeting a number of people who were reintroducing biodiversity to their country, said Rebecca Carter, his agent. After his disappearance, a video posted on social media showed him talking to an indigenous group, explaining that he had come to learn how they organize and deal with threats.
“I am grateful to have lived with a man who loved people,” his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, told O Globo newspaper. “He didn’t talk about villains. He didn’t want to demonize anyone. His mission was to elucidate the complexity of the Amazon.”
Phillips was also a sharp writer with an ear for readability. A 2018 story for The Guardian had one of journalism’s most dramatic introductions:
Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian government official for indigenous peoples, wearing only shorts and thongs as he squats in the mud by a fire, rips open a monkey’s boiled skull with a spoon and eats his brains for breakfast while discussing policy. †
Phillips described his 17-day journey with Pereira through the remote aboriginal area of the Javari Valley at the time as “the most physically grueling thing I’ve ever done.” In June, he was in the same region with Pereira—it would be one of his last travelogues for his book—when they were murdered together.
Three suspects have been arrested and the police have known an acquaintance. Pereira had previously caught people fishing illegally in the native area and received threats.
Phillips was more concerned with risking his professional future, betting a book of travel expenses wilting the wallet and hoping it would resonate. He had put the newspaper work aside to focus on it.
“I’m a freelancer with nothing but a book in my life and not even enough to live on next year as I write it,” he told the AP in a private exchange in September. “Not so much all the eggs in the same basket as the whole hen house.”
He and Sampaio had moved to the northeastern city of Salvador. He was haunted by the change of scenery and teaching English to children from poor communities. They had started the process of adopting a child.
Sampaio told the AP she doesn’t know what will become of her husband’s book, but she and his siblings want it published — whether it’s just the four chapters already written or others that have been added with help from are completed outside. Phillips’ optimistic message – that the Amazon can be preserved, with the right actions – could still reach the world.
“We would love to find a way to honor the important and vital work Dom did,” Margaret Stead, his publisher at Manila Press, wrote in an email.
The title of the book was ‘How to Save the Amazon’. Bolsonaro feels it needs rescue, says about 80% of Brazil’s part is intact, and offers to fly foreign dignitaries over its vast bounty. But Phillips knew the view is different from the forest floor; large hardwood trees have been cut down to scarcity in many seemingly pristine areas. His companions traveling through the Javari Valley were celebrating when they came across one.
“The Amazon is far less pristine and protected than most people think and far more endangered than people realize,” he wrote to the AP in September.
He noted, with a touch of intrigue, that he recently visited a pristine area of jungle full of massive trees. Such places, he said, were usually out of reach.
And where is that holy ground?
“You can read it in the book,” he wrote, “when it comes out.”
Biller is the news director of AP Brazil.