THEY are among the most isolated places on the planet. Spanning nine South American countries and 2.7 million square miles, the Amazon is the world’s largest forest and home to more than 120 indigenous groups and one in 10 known species.

But remote as such places are, this has not stopped outside interest – a lot of outside interest – and much of it malign. From illegal fishing and hunting to goldmining and logging as well as being a conduit for criminal drug cartels and their cocaine trade, all are adversely impacting on this vast expanse of tropical forest.

Those brave enough to draw attention or challenge such harmful forces run a regular gauntlet of threats and often pay a terrible price, sometimes with their lives.

This most likely was the fate to befall British journalist Dom Phillips, 57, and Bruno Araujo Pereira, 41 (both shown below), an expert on indigenous groups, who disappeared on June 5 while working in Brazil’s remote Javari Valley, a region that has become a growing hotbed of hostility.

The National: A worker of the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, stands next to a banner with images of missing Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, right, and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips, during a vigil in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, June 13, 2022. Brazilian

I say most likely, because reports from the Brazilian police and authorities confirm a suspect linked to the men’s disappearance confessed to burying their bodies after shooting Phillips and Pereira.

The wife of Dom Phillips, Alessandra Sampaio, left little doubt as to the men’s fate after releasing a statement on Friday.

“Although we are still awaiting definitive confirmations, this tragic outcome puts an end to the anguish of not knowing Dom and Bruno’s whereabouts. Now we can bring them home and say goodbye with love,” Sampaio said.

“Today, we also begin our quest for justice. I hope that the investigations exhaust all possibilities and bring definitive answers on all relevant details as soon as possible.”

It goes without saying that such an investigation will most likely be protracted and challenging. It will, though, undoubtedly underline the plague of criminality that exists in places like Javari and other equally resource-rich parts of the Amazon basin.

Dom Phillips and Bruno Araujo Pereira were only two of many people who have dedicated their lives to documenting the struggle between the people who want to protect the Amazon and those who want to exploit it.

“They killed Bruno and Dom. They killed two of ours,” Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian biologist and a policy adviser at the Rainforest Foundation Norway, told the Financial Times.

“They died because they cared. They died because for three-and-a-half years, the president has attacked indigenous people, environmentalists and journalists and encouraged crime in the Amazon.”

Rittl, of course, was referring to Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who ever since his election in 2018 has made government budget cuts for reserves like Javari while expressing support for illegal gold miners and loggers which many environmentalists say has been taken as a green light to raze the rainforest.

According to a 2021 study by the Science Panel For The Amazon, a US-convened group of 200 regional scientists, altogether the Amazon basin has lost 17% of its original forest while another area that size has been degraded.

Nearly 70% of the basin’s protected areas and indigenous territories face current deforestation threats from road building, expansion of mining, oil and gas development, dam creation or other incursions, the study noted.

All this exploitation of resources the Brazilian president has time and again expressed his open approval of.

It should come as no surprise then that Bolsonaro is no admirer of journalists and activists like Phillips and Pereira who highlight such controversial issues.

It’s a view Bolsonaro has expressed with characteristic venom on more than one occasion. In a statement last week, the Brazilian leader cast blame on Phillips for his disappearance, insisting the journalist was “disliked in the region”.

“He did a lot of stories against gold mining and on environmental issues,” Bolsonaro (below) said.

The National: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro

“In that region, a region extremely isolated, not a lot of people liked him. He should have redoubled his focus on taking care of himself. But he decided to make this excursion.”

Bolsonaro, who once faced tough questioning from Phillips at a news conference over weakening environmental law enforcement, also said that the two men “were on an adventure that is not recommended”.

However, such criticisms even from the very top tier of the Brazilian government have not deterred those determined to work against exploitation and criminal activity in Javari.

So bad is the situation now, say local indigenous people, that they have started formally patrolling the forest and rivers themselves. It’s an indigenous association called Univaja that helps organise the patrols and it was the story of their activities on which Phillips and Pereira were working when they disappeared.

Spanning a territory bigger than Portugal, the Javari Valley Indigenous Reservation is home to an estimated 6300 indigenous inhabitants, including 19 tribes believed to still live without outside contact.

In the dense forests of Javari where there are virtually no roads, trips can take a week or more by boat using isolated waterways. Hard to access, and even harder to patrol, the region is criss-crossed by meandering rivers that flood the surrounding area for several months a year. It’s precisely these circumstances that make the Javari a useful base for criminal operations.

One line of investigation police are pursuing over the deaths of Phillips and Pereira involves the possible involvement of an international network that pays poor fishermen poachers to illegally catch protected fish in Javari, the second-largest indigenous territory in Brazil, which borders Peru and Colombia. The suspects in the Phillips-Pereira case are brothers Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira. Both are fishermen.

Among illegal fishing “mafias” in Javari, one of the most valuable targets is the world’s largest freshwater fish with scales, the arapaima.

It weighs up to 200kg and can reach three metres in length. The fish is sold in nearby cities, including Leticia in Colombia, Tabatinga in Brazil, and Iquitos in Peru.

Manoel Felipe, a local historian and teacher who also served as a councillor, told reporters that an illegal fishing trip to the Javari Valley lasts around one month, and for each illegal incursion, one fisherman earns at least $3000. This is serious money in what are often deeply impoverished areas.

“The fishermen’s financiers are Colombians,” Felipe was cited by Al Jazeera news as saying. “In Leticia, everybody was angry with Bruno [Pereira]. This is not a little game. It’s possible they sent a gunman to kill him.”

Pereira, who previously led the local bureau of the government’s indigenous agency, known as FUNAI (Fundacao Nacional do Indio), had taken part in several operations against illegal fishing. FUNAI is also charged with protecting Brazil’s estimated 235 indigenous tribes, many of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world.

But observers in the region say ever since Bolsonaro has pushed to develop the Amazon’s “rich lands”, he has also piled pressure on FUNAI, with many veteran officers being forced to quit among them was Pereira.

Funai’s base in the Javari area has meanwhile been a target of several shooting attacks in recent years. In 2019, FUNAI’s anti-logging and anti-poaching chief for the Javari Valley was shot dead in the city of Tabatinga.

Brazil is no stranger to the murder of environmentalists and other activists. The 1988 murder of Chico Mendes, the country’s most famous conservationist at the time, helped spark an environmental movement in the country to protect the Amazon. Mendes’s death at age 44 became a turning point in Brazil’s environmental consciousness.

But while international environmental groups lauded him, Brazilian cattle ranchers and others with a financial stake wanted him out of the way. From 2009 through 2020, there were 139 killings of environmental activists and defenders in the Amazon, according to data compiled by a journalism project called Tierra de Resistentes.

The region’s indigenous people have also borne the brunt of many acts of aggression at the hands of criminal groups. Back in 2017, there were reports of a “massacre” of as many as 10 indigenous people known as “flecheiros” or “archers”, including women and children that were foraging for turtle eggs by the edge of the Jandiatuba River in Javari.

Reports presented by FUNAI said they were killed by illegal gold miners searching for food who were afterwards overheard in the bar of a nearby town bragging about “cutting up” indigenous people before being arrested and taken in for questioning. Like similar cases the outcome was unresolved, ostensibly because the bodies and sufficient evidence could not be found.

This pattern of killings, be it of indigenous people or activists, continues to this day and it’s not just illegal fishermen, loggers or miners who often want such people stopped in their tracks. The Javari region is also the location of heavy narco-trafficking activity which is sometimes linked to other areas of illegal operations.

Since the 1990s, drug cartels have used the region’s rivers to ship cocaine and other drugs from Peru and Colombia, for both the Brazilian and international markets, says Aiala Colares, a geographer and Amazon expert at the Federal University of Para.

“By its very nature, the forest has always been an attractive space for drug traffickers, since they can camouflage drugs so easily,” Colares told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency.

Speaking to AFP’s Brazil correspondent Marcelo Silva de Sousa recently, Colares explained how drug gangs operating in the Javari region are “multidimensional” outfits, with operations that also include illegal logging and fishing.

The main group “Os Crias” emerged in 2021 as a splinter from the Northern Family, one of the biggest criminal organisations in the Amazon basin. They now dominate the frontier trade on the Brazilian side and the Javari trafficking routes, Colares said.

The past 10 years has seen an explosion in drug trafficking through the Javari’s hidden waterways as the cultivation of coca – the plant used to make cocaine – surged across the border in Peru.

Coca farming increased by nearly 20% between 2019 and 2020 to 152,654 acres in Peru, the second biggest producer after Colombia, according to UN figures.

This rapidly growing illegal cocaine trade has unleashed fierce rivalries in what experts call the “triple frontier” region between Brazil, Peru and Colombia, as rival Brazilian and Colombian cartels wrestle to control access to the Amazon River to ship their cocaine to the lucrative international market.

Evidence of the violence cause by the illegal drug trade can be measured by the fact that Amazonas, the state in which the Javari Valley is located, has now become Brazil’s most violent per capita after a 54% increase in the number of murders last year, according to a study by Brazilian news website G1, the Brazilian Forum of Public Security and the University of Sao Paulo.

For now, there is little sign of such levels of violence reducing as the criminal activity grows across the region and the Amazon’s huge natural resources continue to be plundered.

This is a struggle over the past versus the future, of culture versus growth. Some Brazilian government officials continue to argue that both are possible while the country’s president shows no interest in compromise when it comes to milking the Amazon’s potential for profit.

Many years ago, when Dom Phillips started out as a music journalist in Britain writing a book on the rise of DJ culture, little could he have imagined that so much of his later life would be inextricably caught up with Brazil and the Amazon rainforest and its people.

Little, too, could he have imagined he would befriend Bruno Araujo Pereira who shared his passion and was willing to devote his life to such a cause.

“He had a deep love, a respect, a fascination and a need to understand the Amazon’s complexity,” Sampaio told Brazilian newspaper O Globo last week.

Confirmation of both men’s deaths marks a grim conclusion to a story that has gripped the world. Here’s hoping that their loss is not in vain and that something positive can come in its wake; a hope that attention afresh might focus on the plight of those indigenous peoples worst affected by the shadowy and violent events going on right now in the hostile heart of the Amazon.