Dom Phillips was a storyteller. Through his career as a journalist, he told the stories of those who were unable to speak out and whose views were overlooked. His second book, How to Save the Amazon, aimed to do exactly this – to speak the story of the Amazon and the Indigenous people within it, and provide solutions to preserve their culture in conjunction with current Brazilian society.
For us, however, he was always Uncle Dom. He has been present in our lives since we were born and was very much involved with our upbringing when we were small children. He remained a positive influence, even when he moved to Brazil in 2007.
We have lots of happy memories with him. So many, in fact, that when we were thinking about what to write in this piece, we weren’t sure how to capture them. How do you find the words to explain how someone has been a consistently kind presence throughout your entire life? Which memories do you choose to share?
In the end, we realised that the best memories we could pass on are the ones that he shared with us through his regular emails about his life in Brazil. These emails, often accompanied with pictures, or links to articles, were full of stories and anecdotes – about what he was working on, about going to Carnival, about adopting his first cat (and eventually a second), about visits to the Amazon, and about meeting Alê, who he later married.
One of the first emails that he sent to us was on 22 March 2008. At the time, we were nine and 11, and Dom wrote to convey his new life in a way we could understand as children.
He told us: “Things are good here. People are very friendly and I have a lot of friends to hang out with. There is a lot of music too, always something to listen to or to go and see. Brazilians are very sociable, they like to go out, be together with their friends, be in a big group of people. I have been lucky to get lots of invitations.”
Dom had been to carnival in Rio for the second time and had begun to establish himself, and build connections and friendships in Brazil. He had also got to grips with Portuguese a bit more, “not fluently. But enough to talk, read a newspaper, understand the news on TV.” Dom described the language as “very musical and fluid – a bit like the people.” Rereading his words 14 years later, we felt that this sentence summed up Brazil for Dom, and encapsulates his love for it.
Dom included some details about his swimming lessons in an open-air pool: “I have almost learnt crawl. Trouble is, my legs want to do breaststroke because they’ve been doing it for so long. So my arms are doing crawl and my legs spinning round like I’m on a bike. Then my teacher shouts from the side of the pool: ‘Leave the bicycle at home! You’re pedalling again.’ Oh well, just keep trying.”
Just keep trying. Very Dom. He quietly persevered with everything he did, no matter the scale of the challenge.
On 23 September 2015, we were 17 and 19, quite a bit older than the first email. Dom had regularly kept in touch throughout this time, and we often met up when he visited the UK. By this time, he had begun to explore and get to know the Amazon and the Indigenous communities who live there.
Dom described Brazilian Portuguese as ‘very musical and fluid – a bit like the people’
He wrote in detail about the people who lived on those isolated reserves, who even then were “fighting loggers” for their land: “Among the nuts things I saw was a logging truck, laden with huge trees, totally illegal, no number plate – these trucks look like something out of Mad Max – rumbling late afternoon out of the reserve, broad daylight.”
Dom’s astonishment at the treatment of the Amazon is clear. Environmental destruction was taking place in broad daylight, before his eyes.
During this three-week trip, Dom spent time with a tribe called the Awá, who, he wrote, lived “very traditional lives, some still in the forest, very threatened”.
Dom depicted in detail how the tribespeople shared a hut between seven people: “I could see a tortoise tethered, two noisy little birds on a string, a large forest rodent and a little ant-eater thing. There were two monkeys squealing on a shelf. Then I saw a little hammock, and thought, ‘Crikey, there must be a baby in there.’
“Another monkey, one of those with huge, round, surprised eyes, lifted its head up and looked at me. There was a baby, but it slept somewhere else. As for his [Dom’s guide’s] aunt and mother, they got tuberculosis and while recovering are still sick. Just shows how dangerous ‘contact’, as they call it, can be.”
Dom’s vivid description does not go without concerns about the safety of the Indigenous peoples and awareness of the risks, even those posed by his own presence on the reserve. Dom was very aware that this was not his land. His respect and awareness grew as he discovered more about Indigenous tribes and his work shifted towards environmental journalism.
Dom’s last email to us was on 27 April this year. Things had changed a bit – one of us was just about to start a PhD/master’s in criminology and the other part way through a PhD in environmental humanities. Rhiannon had sent Dom her first co-authored article, and Dom replied: “Very impressive how all your academic careers are flourishing, I’m going to feel really uneducated next time we meet trying to keep up with you all!”
Even in these short sentences, Dom’s sense of humour comes through – of course, he was anything but uneducated. He taught us a great deal over the years and we’re really lucky to have had him in our lives. It’s impossible to comprehend that there won’t be a next time that we meet.
Over the last few weeks, Dom has become one of his stories. We, along with many others, will ensure that his narrative continues.