Brazil’s indigenous defender, sidelined under Bolsonaro, brought ‘abandoned’ tribes to life

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ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil, June 19 (Reuters) – Six tribes from Brazil’s remote Javari Valley gathered in a meeting hall on June 11 to mourn the disappearance of Bruno Pereira, an adviser to their collective, and Dom Phillips, British journalist his work.

Indigenous patrol boats organized by Pereira, a former senior official with the indigenous affairs agency Funai, were still searching for signs of the missing men on an Amazon tributary that runs through their reservation.

But the assembly had little doubt about their fate.

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“Bruno died as a shield, protecting us and our territory,” said Manoel Chorimpa, a member of the Marubo tribe and organizer of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), addressing the room crowded with pierced and painted faces, feathered headdresses and warriors holding spears.

Three days later, a fisherman who had confronted the native patrols confessed to killing Pereira and Phillips.

Shock at their plight has echoed across Brazil and around the world, highlighting the overhaul of indigenous agency Funai under President Jair Bolsonaro, as well as a growing wave of violence and criminal incursions on communities. indigenous lands.

“Why didn’t the government act before what happened to our brother Bruno and the journalist?” Chief Arabonah Kanamari angrily asked the Univaja assembly.

“Now it’s up to us to guard our own turf. The Funai have pretty much abandoned us,” he said.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but he made clear his contempt for Funai and its mission. Criticizing constitutional protections for indigenous lands as an obstacle to development, he came to power in 2019 vowing to “take a scythe around the neck” of the agency.

Public records reflect his approach, as Funai’s staff and budget have been cut since he came to power. The new leadership has centralized and slowed approval of operations, making it harder to respond quickly to reports of illegal logging, mining and poaching, according to Indigenistas Associados, a nonprofit advocacy group made up of veterans. and current agency staff.

Funai did not respond to questions about new policies or growing reports of attacks on Indigenous reservations.

Violence against indigenous Brazilians and illegal incursions on their land roughly doubled in the first two years of Bolsonaro’s government compared to the previous two years, according to the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI).

According to human rights group Global Witness, the number of murders of indigenous land defenders in Brazil rose to 10 in 2019 and 2020, compared to just five in the previous two years combined.

“Since taking office, President Bolsonaro has really started to support and protect anyone who invades indigenous territory, whether it’s loggers, fishermen or miners, who now feel protected by the State,” said Sydney Possuelo, Brazil’s leading expert on uncontacted tribes. and a former president of Funai.

SHORT CAREER

Pereira started working for Funai in 2010 in the Javari Valley, an area larger than Austria that is home to the highest concentration of uncontacted indigenous tribes in the world.

Indigenous friends and colleagues said he fell in love with the area and its people during his eight years in office.

Videos from 2013 show Pereira wearing faded makeup walking barefoot through the jungle with local tribesmen. Indigenous leader Kora Kanamari said Pereira took the sacred psychoactive brew ayahuasca during rituals with the Kanamari tribe.

In 2018, Pereira moved to Brasilia to become Funai’s chief of operations serving uncontacted and newly contacted tribes, but his job soon clashed with the new Bolsonaro government.

In early 2019, Bolsonaro publicly chastised environmental law enforcement for destroying material seized from illegal miners and loggers.

In September of the same year, Pereira worked with the Federal Police on an operation that destroyed 60 boats used by illegal miners in the Javari Valley and nearby areas.

Alexandre Saraiva, then federal police chief in Amazonas state, told Reuters that other Funai officials resisted the operation until Pereira secured the support of federal prosecutors, who forced the hand of the agency.

Within three weeks, Funai removed Pereira from his managerial position, stripping him of his authority and putting his career in doubt.

Funai has not commented on the operation or the reason for Pereira’s demotion.

“Bruno was sad,” said Beto Marubo, Univaja’s representative in Brasilia. “He felt persecuted by his own institution.”

At the time, Marubo said Univaja was struggling to get help in the Javari Valley from police and government agencies without evidence of criminal activity.

He asked his friend Pereira, who took leave from Funai in 2020, for help documenting the invasions, and last year they set up an “indigenous watchdog” operation to patrol the reserve.

Pereira taught the tribesmen, many of whom came from remote villages with limited fluency in Portuguese, how to fly drones and use mobile apps to record invasions of their lands.

And he is the author of a 56-page report, dated November 2021, detailing the findings of the team’s first major expedition, seen exclusively by Reuters.

Team members documented 67 signs of illegal activity by hunters and anglers, ranging from a tapir decoy to traps for the yellow-spotted river turtle, as well as scraped eggs and shells.

They photographed illegal boat anchorages and encampments, some with supplies for salting the giant pirarucu fish, whose scales and decapitated heads were left behind.

The evidence was cataloged and geotagged, along with the names and identifying details of suspected illegal fishers.

Eliesio Marubo, an attorney for Univaja, sent the report to Funai and federal prosecutors. Last week, after Pereira and Phillips disappeared, he said prosecutors had opened an investigation.

The vigilance team’s work quickly caught the attention of local fishermen who sell tons of endangered river fish across the neighboring border in Peru. Illegal fishing, mining and poaching in the region are often funded by criminal groups that launder money from a growing cross-border drug trade, according to state and federal police.

Pereira had been receiving threats for years, but he told Univaja organizers the volume was increasing.

In April, an anonymous letter arrived at Univaja’s offices explicitly targeting him and Beto Marubo.

“I know Beto the Indian is against us and Bruno de Funai is the one ordering the Indians to seize our engines and take our fish,” the letter reads. “If you want to cause damage, you better be ready. You’ve been warned.”

Univaja did not seize motors or fish, but its reports may have led authorities to make seizures, said Eliesio Marubo, who shared details in the letter.

ARMY ENCOUNTER

Pereira and Phillips were watching the work of the native patrols when they came to the attention of an angry armed fisherman, four patrollers who attended their final days on condition of anonymity told Reuters for fear of reprisals.

Phillips and Pereira first encountered a vigilance team along the Itacoai River on June 2, three days before they went missing. Phillips told them he was documenting indigenous efforts to protect the Amazon for a book.

The next day, the couple watched as patrollers mapped the winding branches of the river, showing how they recorded evidence of illegal fishing and hunting.

At around 6 a.m. on June 4, the team saw fisherman Amarildo da Costa and two other men pass by in a boat heading to their reserve, which is off-limits to outsiders without permission.

Phillips and Pereira, who had no intention of entering the reserve, stayed behind while the native team, wearing balaclavas to protect their identities, pursued Costa’s boat.

Seeing them approach, Costa and his companions stop and brandish two shotguns with intimidating gestures.

The vigilance team retreated and reported the incident to the police, who took no immediate action.

Soon after, they returned to an isolated house by the river which served as their base of operations.

Pereira was sitting on the dock there, unmasked and in sight of the river, when Costa drove by on a boat and spotted him with the team, less than an hour after the gunfight.

Despite the patrollers’ fears for their safety, Phillips and Pereira left at dawn the next day for the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte, according to the patrollers.

A police report seen by Reuters said a witness downriver spotted Pereira’s boat followed two minutes later by Costa’s.

Pereira and Phillips would never be seen alive again.

Arrested three days later for possession of weapons, Costa confessed to killing and dismembering the men, police said.

On Wednesday, he led investigators to their remains.

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Reporting by Jake Spring in Atalaia do Norte and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Additional reporting by Ricardo Brito and Isabel Versiani in Brasilia, and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Brad Haynes and Daniel Wallis

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