12 Jun 2021

Larry Keating: investigating corruption in the Amazon

From Saturday Morning, 9:35 am on 12 June 2021

Was there a link between the brutal attacks on conservationists Sir Peter Blake and Captain Pete Bethune in Brazil?  

In his new documentary, The Garden of Evil, Larry Keating investigates the possibility that the attacks, both of which happened in the Amazon but 16 years apart, might have been the work of powerful criminal organisations with involvement in illegal logging, drug trafficking, and the export of endangered animals.  

Both men went to the Amazon to see first-hand the environmental destruction going on there, Keating says.

“We’ve seen images for the last few years now about the decimation, the fires that are burning out hundreds of thousands of acres, in fact kilometers of the Amazon are being burnt out every week. It’s massive.” 

The Garden of Evil doesn’t delve into the events that took place on the night of Sir Peter’s death - because that’s a story that’s already been told, Keating says. 

“We know that a group of river-rats as they’re called, pirates, boarded the boat at about ten o’clock on a very dark night and the raid began.” 

Keating says being in the Amazon gave him a feel for what it may have been like on board the boat that night 20 years ago. 

“I think the Amazon, you see it in two different lights. One is if you’re looking at it from the blue planet ideas of David Attenborough and so on, it’s beautiful, it’s an extraordinary part of the world.  

“On the other hand, beneath the canopy of beauty is all of this danger, certainly in the cities and in the areas where they’re doing a lot of the deforestation. Anybody that is an activist or interested in the environment, protecting the environment, the rain forest, is in true danger.” 

The Amazon has been a dangerous place for many years, he says. In fact, during the course of making the film, Keating says about 200 people were murdered. 

“Anyone who challenges, you can call them the mafia, you can call them what you like, the people who have got their own financial interests in ripping out the rain forests or trafficking drugs or people, anyone who gets in their way is in danger of being attacked."

In 2017, Pete Bethune was in Brazil investigating whether Sir Peter Blake’s death was linked to illegal-gold mining when he was the victim of a knife attack, which he was lucky to survive.

On his boat in Seattle, researching for the film, Keating sat down with Bethune to get a sense of the danger he faced that day. 

“The more I talked to Pete about the experience, the more I sensed the trepidation that he still to this day feels about the moment he was attacked by two men, both with knives.” 

As the interview came to an end Bethune was trembling. Keating asked him to confront his demons and travel back to the Amazon, to the very spot the attack took place. 

“It didn’t take him too long to agree to do that.” 

But back in Brazil and in an area run by drug lords only kilometers away from where Bethune was attacked, the danger was inescapable, Keating says. 

Within seconds of being there the crew’s security told them they needed to get out right away. 

Keating says the filmmakers and investigative journalists working with the team wanted to cover a broad perspective of what’s going on in the Amazon, including its deforestation and issues raised by both Sir Peter Blake and Pete Bethune. 

“I think we’ve been able to capture that and deliver a message of hope,” he says. 

“One would have to be very hopeful that at some point the world comes together as Sir Peter Blake had said himself, there’s a quote I remember where he says: ‘I’m fast coming to the conclusion that the rest of the world is going to have to act if the Amazon is to be saved...the world as a whole is going to have to invest in preserving the rain forest which is so essential to the Earth as a carbon sink’.” 

The Garden of Evil at the DocEdge Film Festival screens at Wellington’s Roxy Cinema on 26 June and then online from 27 June.