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Missing men were killed trying to warn of illegal activity threatening the Amazon

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Two men set off on a river trip in the Amazon and went missing. Two bodies believed to be them were found days later. Now someone has confessed to killing them. The men are journalist Dom Phillips and researcher Bruno Pereira. And their apparent deaths are part of something much larger and very complicated - the relationship between the Brazilian government and Indigenous people, the challenge of protecting the region's natural environment and rampant crime associated with that.

John Watts is an environmental editor at The Guardian and is with us to talk about this. John, thanks for making time.

JOHN WATTS: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: And I first want to tell you that I'm sorry, because I have read that you were a fairly close friend with Dom Phillips. I think you even attended his wedding. So I imagine this is quite a personal loss as well as a professional one.

WATTS: That's right. Thank you. Dom had many friends. He was extremely popular, a well-loved guy. So yes, it's hit all of us and, of course, the family very hard.

PFEIFFER: I understand you don't know Bruno Pereira as well, but you knew that Dom Phillips was collaborating with him on a project. Can you tell us what they were working on that took them to the Amazon?

WATTS: Bruno Pereira was an expert on Indigenous issues, and Dom Phillips had first met him in 2018. And Dom really seemed to admire Bruno. He wrote several really powerful stories at that time about the great work done by people like Bruno Pereira in supporting Indigenous people to demarcate their land, for example, and to help them expose criminality of people who invaded their land to steal timber or fish or other resources that were important.

And last year, he took 12 months off to write a book that was to be called "How To Save The Amazon." This trip to the Javari Valley with Bruno was to be one of his last trips of this book that he hoped to be a very comprehensive look at the Amazon's problems but also at potential solutions.

PFEIFFER: Was there a specific story or stories these two men were working on that would have put them in the crosshairs of someone who wanted to harm them?

WATTS: There was a story they were working on that may have led to this horrible outcome, and that is that Bruno had recently been working with Indigenous people to expose the activities of a criminal fishing group. Criminal fishing doesn't sound too threatening at first, but you have to consider that this group who operated on the edge of the Indigenous territory were involved in a whole range of illegal activities. There has been some reporting in Brazil that they were also involved in smuggling and quite possibly also connecting with the narcotrafficking gangs. So what Dom and Bruno were working on was a really important but very risky story.

PFEIFFER: John, you've noted that what apparently happened to these two men is not a one-off, it's part of a trend in environmental defenders being killed worldwide, especially in Brazil.

WATTS: Yes. I've done a lot of coverage of this for The Guardian. These cases of killings of environmental defenders are usually treated as one-offs in remote parts of the world. But in fact, when you start to put them together, you see that there is a frontline, a conflict zone between those who want to run down the world's last enclaves of biodiversity and climate resilience and those who are trying to protect them. And, of course, the journalists who are on this frontline are, in a sense, 21st century war correspondents. The case of Dom is really unusual in the Brazilian Amazon. No journalist has been killed there for a very long time, but threats against journalists and killings of environmental defenders intensified.

PFEIFFER: John Watts is an environmental editor at The Guardian. John, thank you.

WATTS: Thank you, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR XAMA SONG, "EU CHOREI NAS MARGENS DO RIO NEGRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
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