Canadian photojournalist attacked while covering anti-Indigenous violence

Jan 5, 2024

Canadian photojournalist attacked while covering anti-Indigenous violence

From Brazil: "It is not about us; it is about the Guarani."
Renaud Phillippe, Ana Carolina Mira Porto, Renato Farac Galata, and members of the Guarani people. Photo: Eduardo Medeiros.

On November 22, 2023, Canadian journalist and photographer Renaud Phillipe was assaulted by balaclava-wearing men, likely farmers, when visiting the city of Iguatemi in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, near the border with Paraguay. Phillipe was in the area to cover the ongoing struggle by Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous peoples for their traditional lands.

Phillipe was accompanied by his wife, the filmmaker and anthropologist Ana Carolina Porto, and forestry engineer Renato Farac Galata, both Brazilians. They were also victimized during the attack.

For Indigenous rights defense groups, the episode is another chapter in the violent reality faced by the Indigenous communities in Mato Grosso do Sul. As is true in so many places around the world, Indigenous people in this region often face violence as they work to defend their territory from encroachment. In recent years, the Guarani have been actively reclaiming land throughout the state - in Portuguese, these reclaimed territories are referred to as retomadas - and have regularly faced violence from rural residents who are not Indigenous. According to the NGO Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), on the same day, two Indigenous people were kidnapped by unknown perpetrators in Iguatemi.

The violence faced by Indigenous people in this context often receives little media attention. In contrast, the news of the attack on Phillippe, Porto, and Galata reached the outside world likely due to Philippe’s Canadian citizenship. This echoes a high-profile incident in July 2022, when British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian expert in Indigenous affairs Bruno Araújo Pereira were murdered in the Amazon region while documenting environmental issues and human rights abuses.

Phillippe is based in Quebec City and his work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, and many other outlets. Much of his work has been as a documentary photographer focused on the long-term consequences of conflicts and natural disasters on the lives of civilians. His profession has led him to places like South Sudan, Tunisia, Haiti, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Thailand, as well as Canada. Philippe and Porto are working on a documentary about the Guarani Kaiowá defending their ancestral territory from farmers.

In a two-session video interview with The Media Co-Op, Philippe was blunt about their ordeal and repeated as a mantra: "It is not about us; it is about them, the Guarani." He consistently expressed his frustration that it took a near-tragedy befalling a blue-eyed, blonde Canadian for the harsh realities experienced by the Guarani people to reach mainstream audiences. Philippe feels disgust at how lives are measured in the media industry. Even through his efforts to constantly re-centre the Guarani, however, his eyes, voice, and pauses during the dialogue offered grim hints at the violence he endured.

In the interview, Philippe talks about what the Guarani people face; the relationships between politicians, law enforcement, and farmers that are victimizing Indigenous lives; the dangers of working as a journalist in conflict zones; being in the spotlight because of his citizenship and background; and the need to pay more attention to those who are guarding the forest.

The Media Co-Op (TMC): How did you plan your visit to the Iguatemi area?

Renaud Phillipe (RP): Actually, it is a project that we've been working on for two years; hence, Carolina and I know many people in the Guarani community, and that morning, we were at the Aty Guasu [“Great Assembly” in Guarani language] meeting at the city of Caarapó, Mato Grosso do Sul, and we shared the ride with members of the village.

The day before, we heard that there was an ongoing situation near Iguatemi at the [village of] Pyelito Tekoha. Thus, we decided that we would go there the following day, and although we wouldn't visit there with the village leader, we would have a member of said group as a companion. I won't reveal any names for matters of safety. The next morning, we went back to the meeting with him. The guy was from there and knew the people we were supposed to meet, but once we arrived, we saw that something was out of place: many people were on the phone, and there were police. At that moment, the information that we had was that three Indigenous people had been kidnapped by the farmers.

It is a long story [breaths]… We started going there with some security from the Ministry of Work, and [Indigenous Affairs Minister] Sonia Guajajara was also coming to the meeting. There were a lot of police and security people with them. So, we headed on the road with a community leader to see what was happening.

Then they stopped the car and waited, waited, and waited… We followed them, and after an hour and a half, they tried to make the bureaucracy work faster to get to the national forest and finally see what was happening. Still, they weren't moving at all, and this community member was extremely worried because we just had news of a shooting and people being kidnapped. There was a real dire situation.

We decided to go ahead, not straight to the location, but to drive to this guy's family place to assess the scenario and see from outside what was happening, check if law enforcement was already there, and all that.

We came about six or seven kilometers before the village, before the new retomada. We dropped this guy with his family, and [Brazilian] border police cars stopped by, and I went straight to identify myself: "I'm a journalist from Canada."

They laughed at us and said, "There is no situation going on; everything is fine." It felt weird. My wife and I were accompanied by Brazilian engineer Renato Farac Galata. We opted to go back to Iguatemi because we were without an internet connection. At the village, we wrote to the Federal Public Ministry (Ministério Público Federal), to our contact with the Guarani and other parties.

Those messages may have been missed, but we decided to head back to just look, not take photos, or go inside the new retomada, not even go in their village. Just looking around because, as I told you, we were maybe six or seven kilometers away when we turned back.

Hell broke loose from there, where we had met the border police cars moments ago. Once we arrived, around 25 to 30 pickup trucks were blocking the road with farmers out wearing balaclavas with just their eyes and mouths visible; I made a turn with the car, then stopped for a brief moment because we knew there were some Guarani people nearby, we wanted to have at least eye contact to make sure they were fine.

And it happened [breaths]… They blocked our car with a pickup, and from there, things worsened.

The question is: "Have we prepared ourselves to go there?" We've been working with the Guarani for two years and are following their struggle.

I've prepared myself since I'm a photographer. I've been working in many places where there is tension. However, I would have never imagined they were going [breaths]… They came for us; they didn't want a journalist to be there.

We've never been to Pyelito village. We've never been to the retomada. They blocked us on the public roadway before we reached the place.

TMC: In 2022, British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Pereira were killed in the Amazon. Did their deaths affect your considerations when preparing for your trip?

RP: No. The honest answer is "no." But the deaths of all journalists around the world doing their jobs is something that you need to think about. I work in conflict areas, but I never go on the frontlines. I look more at the impact of those conflicts on the civil population. So, I must avoid being paranoid and thinking: "This happened [to that person], so it might happen to me."

Nevertheless, after two years of working on the same story and going to the same places, you start to feel confident and think: "I understand the situation; I know that there might be some tension." Still, at the same time, I would never have imagined that they were going to target us like that, like the way they did. I wasn't expecting that situation on that day.

TMC: While you were under the attacks of the masked men, did you fear for your lives?

RP: The brain is a funny thing. It is a long story, but I was worried about my wife and the car's key while they attacked us. Those guys jumped on me and beat me up; still, at that moment, all I thought was about my wife because I knew what they had done with the Guarani; they were sadistic.

Listen, I need to say this: It is not our story. This happened to us and everything, and gave us a way to talk about the Guarani ordeal. For the last two years, I've been doing this work, and it is tough to convince the media that there is an ongoing drastic situation and that it is essential to address it. The Guarani are suffering from a lack of visibility to their plight. I'm not saying "thank you" to the attackers, but what they did to us was probably the last thing they wanted because, from that moment on, all the media turned their eyes to the Guarani situation.

It is not "our" story. Your question is very personal, and I understand it; people wonder about that kind of stuff from journalists working in those areas. However, I need to say that this is not about us. The violence we suffered in that event is part of the daily lives of the Guarani people. Our attackers gave us this opening and this channel to talk about the Guarani situation. In a way, "thanks" to them for doing so.

On the other hand, the simple answer to your question is: I was scared for my wife and the car's keys; I was able to hide the keys all the time and thank God for that. There was a first moment when they beat me and threatened Carolina, and then they went away a little bit, took everything that was in the car, and started to search through the items.

At a given moment, the more violent of the bunch started to come back at us with my wife's written agenda, and we believe he probably read the word "anthropologist" in it. For them, anthropologists are proving that according to history, those lands have always belonged to the Guarani. He was frenzied and thankfully didn't reach us in time.

While all this happened, there was a car of the Military Police from Mato Grosso do Sul, and at some point, I made eye contact with them while my wife was calling them, waving her hands in the air, but they simply looked away and laughed.

I now see myself wondering: "What could you do when you saw the border police laughing at you? When you saw the Military Police watching the aggression and then looking away? Where could I go to?"

It was a scary moment, and for four days, we had to hide in a city with some wonderful people. We stayed there because there was no way out, as we knew that the police were part of this horror.

TMC: Did it leave you with any lasting physical injury or psychological trauma?

RP: As for the body, I have one broken rib, and the mind will recover. I thought a lot about this question before answering because, as I said, it is not about us; it is about the Guarani, and I'll say it again and again.

All of us are the result of everything that has happened in our lives. So, of course, this moment has left some marks, but more than that, the last two years going in around 24 different retomadas and the testimony from people we've collected also left marks. It is hard to see that so much violence happens against those people, and so much impunity is out there for those who are committing this violence. If there is one [positive] thing that happened when we were assaulted, it was that it gave us a trend: they wanted to silence us, but instead, they did exactly the opposite.

TMC: Do you believe that by being a foreigner, your ordeal got more attention than what was already happening and still happens to Indigenous people in that area?

RP: It truly saddens me, to be honest. To understand that I, as a white North American guy, had to be beaten up, and from that moment, I'm doing lots of interviews, and people are [breaths]… Lots of journalists are now paying attention to the Guarani story.

Still, they undergo the very same violence again and again, and to be blunt, it is very sad. That is the reality, and it saddens me. There is so much injustice, and then: "Ok, it needs to happen to a foreigner coming from far away…"

The abuses happen daily. And the fact that I'm a journalist, because the press has some kind of "protection," as we are not there to promote an idea or to defend one group, so when I see these people blocking the road with pickups, my first idea was: "Let's see them, talk with them and let them speak what they have to say." They are farmers, guarding their land and way of thinking.

After we could process everything, Carol and I realized what was clear: "Let's use this space that has been opened to talk, to share the story of the Guarani, to denounce a situation that sees a lot of violence being perpetrated with total impunity."

The answer to your question is "yes." We decided to use this space, and again, I'll tell this in every question you ask: It is not about our little story that happened, but it is to talk about the most significant story, the Guarani's.

TMC: Do you think the Brazilian authorities do enough to avoid such situations? If not, what can be done for that region and those living or visiting there?

RP: Clearly not. It is not that they are not doing enough; it is that, from what we saw, they are doing nothing at all. I know that many good people are in this, and they want things to change. I’m talking about people in different Ministries, even about some police members and forces that can see the situation from outside and feel the concern and want to be involved. Still, the reality is that it has taken everything from the Guarani that have been bashed up, the woman that has been raped, and the torture that took place. When we arrived, all this was already happening to them.

It takes its toll on them to be able to give testimony to law enforcement about what is going on while being respected and heard. It took many different organizations to pressure the police for this to happen. This narrative shows that agribusiness is powerful; it is in politics and controls the region.

There is an episode that I found very odd. When we had to go to the hospital in Mato Grosso do Sul after the attack, two different hospital people weren't aware of what transpired. They would ask my wife and me: "Who did that (to you)? The 'Indians' did that to you?" [Note: 'Indians' and 'Índios' are considered offensive words when referring to Indigenous people in Brazil, but many in the country still use this vocabulary.]

Then I would reply: "Actually, no. The farmers did that to us, and the Guarani saved us because the only place we could go after this was in the Guarani village. We knew that we would have some protection and help."

I don't blame the doctor for asking us that. I don't blame them; they live in a region with a mentality, and the media is participating to spread this line of thought. But I appeal to people: Go on the field, stay with the Guarani, follow their fight, and then… It takes some engagement from the media; however, it is hard to say something to anybody. This is due to agribusiness, where everybody is related from close or far. It is very hard to oppose that.

TMC: What would you say to any journalist, photographer, documentarist, or activist who wants to venture into those places?

RP: Never give up!

Never give up when you have a story that you believe is important to cover. Of course, find a way to do it safely because it doesn't make sense to do it if you are not coming back to tell the story. This is clear.

I'm saying this now, and I was also saying this before. It is not the very first time that I'm in a situation where I'm surrounded by tension with many risks, and I have many colleagues who share similar experiences. The other day, I listened to a Brazilian guy giving an interview. I don't remember his name, but I recall him saying that if you walk with people who are beaten up, you will end up being beaten up one day. It is sad, but it is almost like a part of the job, and you need to understand that when there are risks, you need to avoid doing stupid things. I am still convinced I didn't do anything stupid. I'm sure that we are here to care about all this, but now, for the second time in my life, I realize that the situation can change like this [snaps fingers], and very fast. Therefore, it is good to know the situation you are covering well. It is crucial to never be alone, to let people know where you are and what you are doing, and to have some risk training to know what works in a conflict area.

But again, it only makes sense to cover a story that you believe to be very important if you are making it back to tell this story. Therefore, never give up; it is part of the job. There are risks.

TMC: Would you go back there in the future?

RP: As soon as possible. And I'll tell you again [breaths]… When it happened, for four days there was no way for us to go around; we did not trust the police; we knew that it was a network, and they knew many people.

Eight hours after the attack, we were at the police station at Amambaí, and two cars with the name of one of the farmers written on the side passed, driving very slowly, looking at the police station. It was an intimidation; it is a network, and thus, we had to hide.

During that time, I don't know how many interviews we gave; we spoke with lawyers, ministries, and politicians and we are not giving up. I will repeat myself: They gave us a trend to keep going because we tasted just a bit of the violence imposed on the Guarani daily.

We have hundreds of testimonies of people talking about this violence. So, of course, we'll keep going there. That is what we do.  

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