'Dom was one of the best - quiet but curious'

By Andrew Downie
São Paulo

  • Published
Dom PhillipsImage source, AFP via Getty Images
Image caption,
Dom Phillips talks to two indigenous men in Roraima State, Brazil

I can't remember the moment I heard the news. I know you're supposed to recall these details, as if the world stops for a second. But I can't.

It feels like an eternity has passed since my friend Dom Phillips went missing on a river in remote western Brazil.

I first met Dom in 2007 when he came to Brazil to finish writing a book about superstar DJs.

Dom used to edit Mixmag, a UK magazine about electronic music. He had some DJ friends here in São Paulo and Brazil seemed a perfect refuge far from London's hustle and bustle. He fell in love with Brazil and when he finished the book he stayed on. Like many immigrants before him Brazil was his blank canvas, and Dom was ready to paint a new life. Before long he was a foreign correspondent and a friend.

He left São Paulo for Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago, lured by the outdoor life he so loved. Rio is surrounded by nature, beaches on one side, mountains on the other. In the 2010s it was the place to be. The city was about to host the 2014 World Cup Final and the 2016 Olympic Games. Journalists were arriving from all over the world and Dom was one of the best: quiet but curious, able to turn his hand to anything. One week he was at the football, writing about the new Brazilian star - known to everyone simply as Neymar; the next he was in Congress covering the downfall of the president.

Unlike many journalists Dom didn't have opinions about everything, at least not loud ones. He always was calmer than everyone else. I can still see him now, smiling and rolling his eyes at some outrageous statement thrown across the table at our Friday night drinks.

But daily journalism can be a grind and not long after the Olympics ended Dom changed tack, to focus more on what he loved. Dom was an outdoors guy, a hiker, a cyclist and a paddle boarder. To many people, Amazonia is hell, with its rain, insects, and chilly nights in hammocks slung between two trees. For Dom, that was heaven. He saw the wonder in the wet.

His wife Alessandra described it as love and respect, plus a deep-seated desire to understand the Amazon's complexity.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira disappeared on 5 June

So he decided to write a book about sustainable development. He wanted to know the Amazon, to really know it, to discover which projects and ideas made people there happier and wealthier, and which did the best job of preserving the unparalleled range of flora and fauna.

One of the doors into the Amazon was held open by Bruno Pereira, the indigenous rights activist who travelled with him on that last journey. Bruno knew the region where their boat vanished like the back of his hand.

Dom was aware such trips carried threats but he was also aware that the threats were much, much greater for the people who lived there full time. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has weakened oversight bodies and the number of indigenous reserves invaded by loggers or miners has shot up, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council, a well-known rights group.

Deforestation also more than doubled in the first three years of the Bolsonaro government, compared with the three years preceding it. Needless to say, the damage is worse in indigenous areas.

Dom saw all this first hand. He interviewed Indigenous people for his book and patiently explained what he was doing. I've seen him standing with a microphone under a roof of palm fronds telling the gathering of locals why he cared. There was some kind of connection.

But he knew he was a visitor. There's one great video of Dom falling from a log into a swollen river. It's raining and slippy and he plunges into the muddy water. You can hear the Indigenous people giggling at the clumsy white man. Dom looks round and smiles. He knew he was in someone else's land.

Image source, AFP via Getty Images
Image caption,
Phillips, from Wirral in Merseyside, had been living in Brazil for more than a decade

My last contact with Dom was via WhatsApp a few days before he set off on that final trip.

"Traveling again tonight on a horrendous 3am flight for 15 hours," he wrote.

"Second trip in a month, still got some others to do, money pretty tight, making it work."

I knew him well enough to understand there was a slice of self-belief buried in the message. He knew he was going to make his book work.

I couldn't wait to read it. Now I'll be waiting forever.

Andrew Downie is a Scottish author and journalist based in São Paulo. He wrote this piece for From Our Own Correspondent