Brazil indigenous defender, sidelined under Bolsonaro, gave life for ‘abandoned’ tribes
By Jake Spring and Anthony Boadle
ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil (Reuters) – Six tribes from Brazil’s remote Javari Valley packed into an assembly hall on June 11 to lament the disappearance of Bruno Pereira, an advisor to their collective, and Dom Phillips, a British journalist reporting on his work.
Native patrolmen organized by Pereira, formerly a senior official for indigenous affairs agency Funai, were still hunting for signs of the missing men on an Amazon tributary that runs through their reservation.
But the assembly had little doubt about their fate.
“Bruno died as our shield, protecting us and our territory,” said Manoel Chorimpa, a Marubo tribesman and organizer for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), addressing the hall crowded with pierced and painted faces, feathered headdresses and warriors clutching spears.
Three days later, a fisherman who had confronted the indigenous patrols confessed to killing Pereira and Phillips.
Shock at their fate has echoed across Brazil and around the world, highlighting the overhaul of indigenous agency Funai under President Jair Bolsonaro, along with a rising tide of violence and criminal incursions on native lands.
“Why didn’t the government take action before what happened to our brother Bruno and the journalist?” Chief Arabonah Kanamari demanded angrily at the Univaja assembly.
“Now it falls to us to police our own territory. Funai has practically abandoned us,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but he has made clear his disdain for Funai and its mission. Criticizing constitutional protections for indigenous lands as a barrier to development, he came to office in 2019 vowing to “take a scythe to the neck” of the agency.
Public records reflect his approach, with Funai’s staff and budget being cut since he came to power. New management has centralized and slowed down approval for operations, making it harder to respond swiftly to reports of illegal logging, mining and poaching, according to Indigenistas Associados, a non-profit advocacy group made up of current and former agency staff.
Funai did not respond to questions about the new policies or the 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 from the two years prior, according to The Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI).
Murders of Brazil’s indigenous land defenders jumped to 10 in both 2019 and 2020, compared to just five in the two prior years combined, according to human rights group Global Witness.
“Since he took office, President Bolsonaro has really begun supporting and protecting anyone who invades the indigenous territory, be they loggers, fishermen or miners, who now feel they are protected by the state,” said Sydney Possuelo, Brazil’s leading expert on isolated tribes and a former Funai president.
Career cut short
Pereira began 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.
Friends and indigenous colleagues said he fell in love with the region and its people over his eight-year tenure there.
Videos from 2013 show Pereira in faded facepaint walking barefoot through the jungle with members of a local tribe. Indigenous leader Kora Kanamari said Pereira took the sacred psychoactive brew ayahuasca in rituals with the Kanamari tribe.
In 2018, Pereira moved to Brasilia to become Funai’s head of operations serving isolated and recently contacted tribes, but his work soon ran afoul of the incoming Bolsonaro government.
In early 2019, Bolsonaro publicly scolded environmental law enforcers for destroying equipment seized from illegal miners and loggers.
In September that year, Pereira worked with federal police on an operation that destroyed 60 boats used by illegal miners in the Javari Valley and nearby areas.
Alexandre Saraiva, then head of federal police in Amazonas state, told Reuters that other Funai officials had resisted the operation until Pereira secured the support of federal prosecutors, who forced the agency’s hand.
Within three weeks, Funai removed Pereira from his senior role, stripping his authority and putting his career in doubt.
Funai did not comment on the operation or the reason for Pereira’s demotion.
“Bruno was sad,” said Beto Marubo, Univaja’s representative in Brasilia. “He felt he was 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 proof of criminal activity.
He asked for help documenting the invasions from his friend Pereira, who took a leave of absence from Funai in 2020, and last year they established an “indigenous vigilance” operation to patrol the reservation.
Pereira taught tribesmen, many from remote villages with a limited grasp of Portuguese, to fly drones and use mobile apps to log invasions of their land.
And he authored a 56-page report, dated November 2021, detailing the findings from the team’s first major expedition, seen exclusively by Reuters.
Team members documented 67 signs of illegal activity by hunters and fisherman, from a tapir lure to traps for the yellow-spotted river turtle, along with eggs and shells scraped clean.
They photographed illegal boat moorings and encampments, some with supplies for salting the giant pirarucu fish, whose scales and decapitated heads were left behind.
Evidence was cataloged and geotagged, along with names and identifying details of suspected illegal fishermen.
Eliesio Marubo, a lawyer for Univaja, sent the report to Funai and federal prosecutors. Last week, after Pereira and Phillips vanished, he said prosecutors opened an investigation.
The work of the vigilance team quickly drew attention from local fishermen who sell tons of threatened river fish across the nearby border with Peru. Illegal fishing, mining and poaching in the area is often financed by criminal groups laundering 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 that the volume was growing.
In April, an anonymous letter arrived at Univaja’s offices targeting him and Beto Marubo explicitly.
“I know Beto the Indian is against us and Bruno from Funai is the one who orders Indians to seize our engines and take our fish,” the letter said. “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 of the letter.
Pereira and Phillips were observing the work of the indigenous patrols when they drew the attention of one armed and angry fisherman, four patrolmen who witnessed their final days told Reuters on condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution.
Phillips and Pereira first met with a vigilance team along the Itacoai river on June 2, three days before they disappeared. Phillips told them he was documenting indigenous efforts to protect the Amazon for a book.
The next day, the pair watched as the patrolmen mapped the river’s winding offshoots, showing how they logged evidence of illegal fishing and hunting.
Around 6 a.m. on June 4, the team saw fisherman Amarildo da Costa and two other men pass in a boat heading toward their reservation, which is off limits to outsiders without permission.
Phillips and Pereira, who had no plans to enter the reserve, stayed back as the indigenous team, wearing balaclavas to protect their identities, pursued Costa’s boat.
Seeing them approach, Costa and his companions stopped and held up two hunting rifles with intimidating gestures.
The vigilance team retreated and reported the incident to police, which did not take immediate action.
Soon afterward, they returned to an isolated house on the riverbank that served as a base of operations.
Pereira was sitting on the dock there, unmasked and in view of the river, when Costa passed by on a boat and spotted him with the team, less than an hour after the armed standoff.
Despite the patrolmen’s fears for their safety, Phillips and Pereira departed around dawn the next day headed for the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte, according to the patrolmen.
A police report seen by Reuters said a witness downstream spotted Pereira’s boat followed two minutes later by Costa’s.
Pereira and Phillips would never again be seen alive.
Arrested three days later on a weapons charge, Costa confessed to killing and dismembering the men, police said.
On Wednesday, he led investigators to their remains.
(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)