How an indigenous expert became a ‘bigger target’ amid illegal fishing activity in the Amazon

Before disappearing into Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, Bruno Pereira was laying the groundwork for a mammoth undertaking: a 350-kilometre trail marking the southwestern border of the Javari Valley indigenous territory, an area the size of Portugal.

The purpose of the trail is to keep cattle herders from encroaching on Javari territory – and it was just Pereira’s latest effort to help the indigenous people protect their natural resources and traditional ways of life.

While Pereira had long pursued these goals as an expert at Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, known as Funai, he has worked in recent years as a consultant to the indigenous organization of the Javari Valley. . Indeed, after Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil in 2019, Funai began to take a more passive approach to protecting indigenous lands and peoples – and the government unabashedly favored development over protection. environment.

Deeply frustrated, Pereira left the agency and embarked on a more independent – ​​and dangerous – path.

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He was last seen alive on June 5 on a boat in the Itaquai River, with British freelance journalist Dom Phillips, near a border area of ​​Peru and Colombia. On Wednesday (Thursday NZT), a fisherman confessed to killing Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, and took police to a site where human remains were found; they have since been identified as the two men.

On Sunday (NZT), a third suspect in their deaths was arrested. Police said in a statement that Jefferson da Silva Lima, known as Pelado da Dinha, surrendered to the Atalaia do Norte police station in the Amazon. Police said the suspect would be remanded to a custody hearing, The Independent reported.

Pereira has spoken to The Associated Press several times over the past 18 months, and he has spoken about his decision to leave Funai, which he says has become an obstacle to his work. After Bolsonaro came to power, the agency was filled with loyalists and people who lacked experience in indigenous affairs, he said.

“There’s no point in me being here as long as these police officers and army generals are in charge,” he said by telephone in November. “I can’t do my job under them.”

Indigenous leader Kamuu Wapichana is surrounded by a banner showing images of murdered British freelance journalist Dom Phillips, left, and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, during a protest in Brasilia, Brazil.

Eraldo Peres/AP

Indigenous leader Kamuu Wapichana is surrounded by a banner showing images of murdered British freelance journalist Dom Phillips, left, and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, during a protest in Brasilia, Brazil.

As a technical consultant for the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Association, or Univaja, Pereira helped the group develop a monitoring program to reduce illegal fishing and hunting in a remote area owned by 6,300 people from seven different ethnic groups, many of whom have little to no contact with the outside world. He and three other non-Indigenous people trained Indigenous patrol officers to use drones and other technology to spot illegal activity, photograph it and submit evidence to authorities.

“When it came to helping indigenous people, he did everything he could,” said Jader Marubo, former president of Univaja. “He gave his life for us.

Like Pereira, Ricardo Rao was an indigenous expert in Funai who in 2019 prepared a dossier detailing illegal logging on indigenous lands in Maranhao state. But fearing to be so outspoken under the new regime, he fled to Norway.

“I applied for asylum in Norway because I knew the men I accused would have access to my name and kill me, just like what happened with Bruno,” Rao said.

Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, 41, center, was led out of the courthouse by military and civilian police.  Police have arrested Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and his brother Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, so far considered by police to be the main suspects in the disappearance of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira.

Edmar Barros/AP

Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, 41, center, was led out of the courthouse by military and civilian police. Police have arrested Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and his brother Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, so far considered by police to be the main suspects in the disappearance of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly advocated harnessing the vast wealth of indigenous lands, especially their mineral resources, and integrating indigenous peoples into society. He pledged to no longer grant Indigenous land protections and said in April he would challenge a Supreme Court ruling, if necessary. These positions directly opposed Pereira’s hopes for the Javari Valley.

Before taking his leave, Pereira was removed from his position as head of the Funai’s division for isolated and recently contacted tribes. The move came shortly after he commanded an operation that expelled hundreds of illegal gold diggers from indigenous territory in Roraima state. His position was soon filled by a former evangelical missionary with a background in anthropology. The choice sparked an outcry as some missionary groups openly attempted to contact and convert tribes, whose voluntary isolation is protected by Brazilian law.

The Itaquai River meanders through the indigenous territory of the Javari Valley, Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas State, Brazil.

Edmar Barros/AP

The Itaquai River meanders through the indigenous territory of the Javari Valley, Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas State, Brazil.

Pereira’s top colleagues at Funai have followed his lead and taken leave, or been moved to bureaucratic positions away from the protected land demarcation, according to a recent report by the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies think tank. and the nonprofit Associated Indigenists, which includes former Funai staff.

“Of Funai’s 39 regional coordination offices, only two are headed by Funai staff members,” the report said. “Seventeen soldiers, three police officers, two federal police officers and six professionals with no prior link to the public administration have been appointed” under Bolsonaro.

The 173-page report released on Monday says many of the agency’s experts were fired, unfairly investigated or discredited by its leaders as they tried to protect indigenous peoples.

In response to questions from the AP about the report’s allegations, Funai said in an emailed statement that it operates “in strict compliance with applicable laws” and does not persecute its leaders.

Demonstrators take part in a protest following the disappearance of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira in the Amazon.

Bruna Prado/AP

Demonstrators take part in a protest following the disappearance of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira in the Amazon.

On the day of their disappearance, Pereira and Phillips slept in an outpost at the entrance to the territory’s main clandestine road, bypassing the permanent base of the native agency at its entrance, residents told AFP. PA.

Two Indigenous patrolmen told the AP the couple were carrying cellphones from the surveillance project with photos of where illegal fishers were. Authorities said an illegal fishing ring was at the center of the police investigation into the killings. Police said in a statement on Saturday that Pereira’s death was caused by three gunshot wounds, two to the abdomen and one to the head, with typical hunting ammunition.

Pereira was not the first person linked to Funai to be killed in the area. In 2019, an active Funai agent, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was shot while riding his motorcycle through the town of Tabatinga. He had been threatened for his work against illegal fishermen before being shot. This crime remains unsolved.

Pereira’s assassination will not stop the Javari territory border demarcation project from moving forward, said Manoel Chorimpa, a Univaja member involved in the project. And in another sign that Pereira’s work will endure, Indigenous patrol enforcement efforts have begun to lead to the investigation, arrest and prosecution of offenders.

Prior to his career at Funai, Pereira worked as a journalist. But his passion for indigenous affairs and languages ​​– he spoke four – led him to change careers. His anthropologist wife, Beatriz Matos, encouraged him in his work, even though it meant long distances away from their home in Atalaia do Norte and their children. More recently, they lived in the capital of Brazil, Brasilia.

Indigenous peoples in the region have mourned Pereira as a partner, and an old photo shared widely on social media in recent days shows a group of them gathered behind Pereira, shirtless, as he shows them something about his laptop. A child gently leans on his shoulder.

Soldiers search for missing British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira from a helicopter above Javari Valley Indigenous territory.

Edmar Barros/AP

Soldiers search for missing British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira from a helicopter above Javari Valley Indigenous territory.

In a statement released Thursday, Funai mourned Pereira’s death and praised his work: “The official leaves a huge legacy for the protection of isolated indigenous peoples. He became one of the best specialists in the country on this issue and worked with the greatest commitment.

Before the bodies were found, however, Funai had issued a statement implying that Pereira had violated procedure by exceeding his clearance inside Javari territory. This prompted Funai’s grassroots strike, claiming that the agency had defamed Pereira and demanding the removal of its president. A court on Thursday ordered Funai to withdraw its statement “inconsistent with the facts” and to stop discrediting Pereira.

Rubens Valente, a journalist who has covered the Amazon for decades, said Pereira’s job became inherently more risky once he felt the need to work independently.

“The fish thieves saw Bruno as a fragile person, without the status and power that Funai had given him in the region where he served as Funai coordinator for five years,” Valente said. “When criminals noticed Bruno was weak, he became a bigger target.

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