“Amazon, you beautiful!” How the murders of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira restarted the fight for Brazil’s forests

Sunday, June 5, started off calmly for Dom Phillips. A British journalist was in the rainforest on a reporter’s trip for his book How to Save the Amazon. Just after dawn, he boarded a small boat with his friend and guide, Bruno Pereira, and they sailed up the Itaquaí River, only the sound of birds and the engine interrupting the soothing silence. But then they were ambushed and both men were shot dead. The killers, furious with Pereira for trying to stop their illegal fishing crime, dragged their bodies into the woods and buried them.

The murders made headlines around the world and shed light on a region where violence has skyrocketed since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took power on January 1, 2019. After a slow response, the Brazilian police, with much help from the indigenous population, took action and three people waiting in prison for trial for murders. Another man identified as the likely intellectual perpetrator of the crime was released from custody in October and is under house arrest.

The killing of a well-liked journalist and highly respected indigenous activist was a shock, but it brought people together in unimaginable ways. Hundreds of Phillips’ friends and family exchanged hugs and stories at services in Rio de Janeiro and London. DJs who knew him from his time assembling Mixmag held tribute nights. And the universities are holding conferences about the deaths of Phillips and Pereira that the world has drawn attention to.

Phillips’ last Instagram post, “Amazonia, you beautiful,” has become a catchphrase

Murals have appeared all over the world; T-shirts with their likeness appeared on social media; and the words from Phillips’ recent Instagram post, “Amazonia, you beautiful”, have become a catchphrase for those who appreciate the region’s charm.

A crowdfunding campaign raised money for the families they left behind. The films are in development and five screenwriters have been asked to write the chapters that will conclude Phillips’ book. Publication is now set for 2024.

The influence of this couple was also felt on a large scale. When they died, Bolsonaro slandered them, implying that it was their own fault for traveling in a dangerous region. The murders – coupled with a growing awareness of the climate crisis – have led to a renewed focus on the Amazon and may even have contributed to Bolsonaro’s defeat in October’s general election. Leftist challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated the incumbent in a tight runoff after promising to put the environment and the climate crisis at the center of his agenda.

Deforestation hit a 15-year high under Bolsonaro and Lula vowed to repeat the success of his earlier Workers Party government when deforestation was reduced by more than 80%. He even vowed to create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and appoint an indigenous leader to run it.

These decisions were welcomed by those close to Phillips, and while the attention paid to the humble 57-year-old from Merseyside was more bitter than sweet, his Brazilian wife and British family tried to draw something positive from the tragedy. “The personal tributes, obituaries, films, exhibits, all in his honor, are so moving,” says Sian Phillips, Dom’s sister.

“He wasn’t selfish and I still think of him saying, ‘Oh no, it’s me on the news again. But on the other hand, since people are talking about the Amazon… that would be the best answer for him in this situation. That would at least be something.

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