Global events can often seem so remote as to be obscure and abstract. When the killings of a journalist and his ‘indigenous peoples expert’ companion took place in Brazil, few might have anticipated the connection with Bebington and a life connected with Wirral. Patsy Connor, Liverpool Irish Festival Trustee, remembers her friend…
Dom (Dominic Mark) Phillips (born 23 July 1964; died 5 June 2022), was killed -aged 57- on a research trip to the Amazon. I’m sure many readers will know about this, due to the extensive news coverage his death inspired. I wanted to put together this tribute to Dom because he was a Merseyside boy, alongside being an exceptional journalist, environmental campaigner and loyal, loving friend to many people. Sincere thanks and credit to the Brazil-based journalist and close friend of Dom’s, Jonathan Watts, who provided many of these facts through, his obituary for Dom in The Guardian.
Dom was born in Bebington, Merseyside, where his Welsh mother -Gillian- was a teacher and his Irish father -Bernard- was an accountant before becoming a lecturer at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moore’s University). Dom’s twin siblings, Sian and Gareth, were born a year later.
Dom had many interests growing up: writing, music, football (especially his club, Everton) and the outdoors, spending active family holidays in North Wales. The whole family were very musical, playing instruments together. This inspired Dom to form several bands as a teenager, in Liverpool, where he regularly performed live (including at Brady’s). He showed great promise as a young wordsmith, writing a play about a treasure island whilst at primary school, performed by the local dramatic society (Bebington). He won a scholarship to St Anselm’s College (Birkenhead), where he developed his writing talent, but was sometimes ‘strapped’ by the Christian Brothers at the Catholic school for speaking his mind.
After a promising but uncertain university career, switching courses from Hull to Middlesex, Dom lost faith in formal academia. He dropped out; travelling and busking around Europe before returning to Liverpool to write. Here he created music fanzine The Subterranean (after Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans) with a civil-service-employed friend, with access to a printer, meaning they could produce the magazine without hefty printing costs.
It was when Dom launched his next magazine, in Bristol in the late eighties, that he and I first met. Introduced by a mutual friend, Jonnie, the three of us shared a deep passion for music, especially live music. We quickly became inseparable gig, club and festival buddies, talking about music endlessly. It was an immediate ‘yes’ from me when the boys asked me to join their new venture; a gritty music and culture magazine, New City Press. We financed the magazine through small grants and selling adverts door-to-door in local shops, pubs and venues, just about covering the cost of the (monthly) magazine’s production and running costs and our tiny -but incredibly happy and creative- city office.
It took us a while to grasp ‘editing down’! When an article required 1,000 words max we’d get carried away, tripling the word count, reducing the font size and squeezing thousands of tiny words on each page. Since then, we’d regularly meet and reminisce about our wonderful -albeit financially bereft- time on the magazine; roaring with laughter re-reading some of the first ‘squashed’ articles we’d written.
Dom and I moved from Bristol to London around the same time (early nineties); Dom worked as an editor on music magazine Mix Mag and I was a producer at BBC Radio 1. New to London, we hung out together, devouring the capital and its music, arts and football scenes.
Writing was in Dom’s soul. He was a talented, original and versatile journalist, expanding his repertoire beyond music to cover political and social issues and the environmental crisis. He wrote for many international publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post and the football magazine, FourFourTwo; juggling freelance work with researching a book about 90s dance, which took him to Brazil (1998).
Whilst there, he fell in love simultaneously with Alê (Alessandra Sampaio (2013), marrying her two years later) and the country, immersing himself in its culture. From clubs, art and the Corinthians football club, to paddleboarding at Copacabana beach, he’d cycle and hike in the local mountains every weekend. He wrote about the government, favela pacification and environmental disasters, becoming a well-respected and hugely popular member of Rio’s journalistic family.
He learned the rainforest was at increasing risk of permanent damage caused by illegal fishermen, miners, drug traffickers and loggers, clearing the land for intensive farming and mining. He discovered the forest’s indigenous communities were essential in protecting it, taking positive action towards the global climate crisis. He took a year out to write How to save The Amazon and worked tirelessly on forest expeditions to understand why politics and poverty forced local people into illegal activity. Under Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, risks to the rainforest have intensified as he’s encouraged aggressive land redevelopment, replacing the forest with vast swathes of commercial industry. Invited to a press conference with the president, Dom asked about the surge in forest fires and provoked a telling and fierce response: “The Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours”.
Helping Dom understand such local issues was Bruno Pereira, a local expert on the Amazon and Jabari Valley tribes, where Dom’s most recent work was focused. They’d made multiple trips into the forest, becoming close friends, committed allies and passionate environmental champions. The two men were in a boat on the Itaquai River, en route to meet another tribe on their way home, when they were gunned down; their bodies hidden deep in the forest. After a lengthy search initiated by the local tribes, the men’s bodies were eventually recovered from the rainforest and returned to their families, during which time a local fisherman confessed to their murders.
Bruno was buried in his home state (Pernambuco) after a small ceremony attended by family members and local tribes who’d known and worked with Bruno for years. A few days later Dom was laid to rest in his wife’s family plot in Niterói (near Rio de Janeiro). For Dom’s many friends who couldn’t attend, his family organised a beautiful memorial for him nearer to home. It was deeply moving with many tears, but also laughter and standing ovations as we shared stories and anecdotes about Dom. He would have enjoyed the celebration, especially the live music performed by his sister, Sian, and her partner, Paul.
Dom and Bruno’s deaths highlight the causes they championed; sparking international outrage and demonstrating the historic assault on indigenous tribes and their precious homes in the Amazon rainforest. Their families, friends and journalistic colleagues around the world are committed to supporting and continuing their work, not letting their voices go quiet and to completing the book Dom had started.
In memory of Dom and Bruno, Sian Phillips -Dom’s sister- is organising a related fund. Dom was reporting on efforts to help indigenous peoples defend themselves, work in which Bruno had been engaged with members of UNIVAJA (Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari, https://univaja.info). All funds raised will be transferred to UNIVAJA to support activities that counter threats from illegal activities in the reserves, where it’s essential to mark the boundaries of the protected regions and put surveillance and communications technology in place to detect and respond to incursions without delay. Purchases will include antennas, satellite phones, radios, internet equipment and other items as required. Dom’s family and friends would appreciate support for this campaign and critical work, which you can follow here: https://gofund.me/9b373866
Alê, Dom’s wife said “he is now a hero, but Dom had no ego so if he is looking at this, he would think it is not for me, this is for the rainforest and the people who preserve it. The attention would make him happy for that reason”. She survives him, along with Sian and Gareth.