By Jake Spring and Anthony Bodle
ITALIA DO NORTE, Brazil (Reuters) – Six tribes in Brazil’s remote Javier Valley crowded an assembly hall on June 11 to mourn the disappearance of their collective adviser Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, who was reporting on his work.
Native patrols, previously organized by Pereira, a senior official at the tribal affairs agency Funai, were still searching for signs of missing people in the Amazon tributary flowing from their reservations.
But the assembly had little doubt about their fate.
“Bruno died as our shield, protecting us and our territory,” said Manuel Chorimpa, organizer of the Marubo Tribes and the Association of Indigenous Tribes of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), addressing the pierced and painted face, feathered headdress and feathered hall. Warriors holding spears.
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Three days later, a fisherman confronting tribal patrols confessed to killing Pereira and Phillips.
The shock of their fate has reverberated in Brazil and around the world, highlighting the overhaul of the tribal agency Funai, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, the rising tide of violence and criminal attacks in the homeland.
“What happened to our brother Bruno and the journalist? Why didn’t the government take action first?” Chief Arbonah Kanamari made the outrageous demand at the Univaza assembly.
“It simply came to our notice then. Funai has practically abandoned us, ”he said.
Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but did say it did not agree to a request for comment. Criticizing constitutional protections for tribal land as a hindrance to development, he took office in 2019, promising to “take the raw material” from the agency.
Public records reflect his views, with Funai’s staff and budget cuts since he came to power. The new management has centralized and delayed approvals for operations, making it difficult to respond quickly to reports of illegal logging, mining and poaching, according to Indigenistas Associados, a nonprofit advocacy group made up of current and former agency employees.
Funai did not respond to questions about new policies or increasing reports of attacks on tribal reservations.
Violence against indigenous Brazilians and illegal infiltration of their land has almost doubled in the first two years of Bolsonaro’s government compared to two years ago, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI).
According to the human rights group Global Witness, the number of murders of Brazilian indigenous land guards has risen to 10 in both 2019 and 2020, from five in the previous two years combined.
“Ever since he took office, President Bolsonaro has begun to support and protect anyone who invades tribal areas, be they loggers, fishermen or miners who now feel protected by the state,” said Sydney, a leading expert on Brazil’s isolated tribes. Posello said. And a former Funai president.
Pereira began working for Funai in 2010 in the Javier Valley, a larger region than Austria, home to one of the most concentrated indigenous tribes in the world.
Friends and tribal colleagues said he fell in love with the area and its people during his eight-year tenure.
Videos from 2013 show Pereira walking barefoot in the woods with members of the local tribe on Facepaint. Tribal leader Kora Kanamari said Pereira took the sacred psychoactive brew Ayahuaska in a ritual with the Kanamari tribe.
In 2018, Pereira went to Brasilia to head Funai’s work serving the isolated and newly contacted tribes, but his work was hampered by the soon-to-be Bolsonaro government.
In early 2019, Bolsonaro publicly accused environmental law enforcement of destroying equipment seized from illegal mines and loggers.
In September of that year, Pereira worked with federal police in an operation that destroyed 60 boats used by illegal miners in the Javier Valley and nearby areas.
Alexandre Saraiva, the then federal police chief for the Amazon state, told Reuters that other Funeral officers had resisted the operation until Pereira had the support of federal prosecutors who forced the agency’s hand.
Within three weeks, Funai removed Pereira from his senior role, seizing power and casting doubt on his career.
Fanny did not comment on the cause of the attack or the demise of Pereira.
“Bruno was sad,” said Beto Marubo, a representative of the Brasilia of Univja. “He felt harassed by his own organization.”
At the time, Marubo said Univaza was struggling to get help from the police and government agencies in the Zawri Valley without evidence of criminal activity.
He sought help from his friend Pereira to document the attacks, who took a leave of absence from Funai in 2020, and last year he set up an “indigenous vigilance” operation to patrol the reserve.
Pereira taught indigenous peoples, from remote villages where many Portuguese had limited control, to use mobile apps to fly drones and invade their lands.
And he wrote a 56-page report, in November 2021, detailing the findings of the team’s first major campaign, particularly as seen by Reuters.
The team members documented 67 signs of illegal activity by hunters and fishermen, ranging from the temptation of a tapir to a trap for a yellow-spotted river tortoise, eggs and shells cleaned.
They photographed illegal boat mooring and camping, including supplies for salting some giant piraruku fish, whose scales and heads were cut off.
Evidence was listed and geotagged, including the names and identification details of the suspected illegal fishermen.
Univja’s lawyer, Elisio Marubo, sent the report to Funai and federal prosecutors. Last week, after Pereira and Phillips went missing, he said prosecutors had opened an investigation.
The vigilance team’s work quickly caught the attention of local fishermen selling tons of dangerous river fish on the border near Peru. Illegal fishing, mining and poaching in the area are often financed by criminal groups looting money from the 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 voice was growing.
In April, an anonymous letter arrived at Univja’s office, clearly targeting him and his son Marubo.
“I know Beto Indian is against us and it is Bruno of Funai who orders the Indians to seize our engines and take our fish,” the letter said. “If you want to do harm, be prepared. You have been warned.”
Univaza did not seize the motor or the fish, but its reports may have led to the coercion of authorities, said Alicio Marubo, who shared details of the letter.
Pereira and Phillips were watching the work of tribal patrols when they noticed a weapon and an angry fisherman, four patrolmen who saw their last days told Reuters on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Phillips and Pereira first met with a vigilance team on the banks of the Itakoi River on June 2, three days before their disappearance. Phillips told him he was documenting indigenous efforts to save Amazon for a book.
The next day, the couple saw the patrolmen mapping the twisting branches of the river, showing them how to find evidence of illegal fishing and hunting.
At about 6 a.m. on June 4, the team saw the fisherman Amarildo da Costa and two other men boarding a boat heading for their reservation, which is restricted to outsiders without permission.
Phillips and Pereira, who had no plans to enter the reserve, returned to the aboriginal team following Costa’s boat, wearing balaclavas to protect their identities.
Seeing them approaching, Costa and his companions stopped and grabbed two hunting rifles with frightening gestures.
The vigilance team retreated and reported the incident to police, who did not take immediate action.
Shortly thereafter, they returned to a separate house on the riverbank, which was the base of operations.
Pereira was sitting in the dock, unmasked and in the river view, when Costa passed by the boat and, less than an hour after the armed blockade, saw him with the team.
Despite fears from patrols for their safety, Phillips and Pereira headed for the nearby town of Italia do Norte the next morning, according to patrolmen.
A police report by Reuters saw Pereira’s boat downstream two minutes later, following Costa’s boat.
Pereira and Phillips will never be seen alive again.
Costa, who was arrested three days later on a weapons charge, confessed to killing the men and dismembering them, police said.
On Wednesday, he led investigators to his remains.
(Reporting by Jacques Spring in Atalia do Norte and Anthony Bodle in Brasilia; Ricardo Brito and Isabel Versiani in Brasilia, and additional reporting by Gabriel Stargarder in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Brad Haynes and Daniel Wallis)
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