Before disappearing into Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, Bruno Pereira laid the foundations for a giant enterprise: a 350-kilometer (217-mile) route that marks the southwestern border of the Javari Valley indigenous territory, an area as big as Portugal.
The aim of the trail is to prevent cattle farmers from invading Javari territory – and this was just Pereira’s latest attempt to help indigenous peoples protect their natural resources and traditional lifestyle.
While Pereira has long pursued these goals as an expert at the Brazilian Indigenous Agency known as FUNAI, in recent years he has worked as a consultant for the Javari Valley Indigenous Organization. This is because FUNAI, after Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president in 2019, began to take a more direct approach to protecting indigenous peoples and people – and the government has promoted development on environmental protection without apology.
Deeply frustrated, Pereira left the agency and embarked on a more independent – and more dangerous – path.
He was last seen alive on a boat in the Itaquai River on June 5, with British freelance journalist Dom Phillips, near an area bordering Peru and Colombia. On Wednesday, a fisherman confessed to killing Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, and took police to a site where human remains were found; they have meanwhile been identified as the two men.
Pereira has spoken to The Associated Press several times over the past 18 months and he has spoken out about his decision to leave FUNAI, which he says has become an obstacle to his work. After Bolsonaro came to power, the agency was full of loyalists and people with no experience in indigenous affairs, he said.
“It does not help that I am there as long as these policemen and army generals speak the shots,” he said by telephone in November. “I can not do my job among them.”
As a technical consultant for the Javari Valley Indigenous Association, or UNIVAJA, Pereira helped the group develop a surveillance program to reduce illegal fishing and hunting in a remote region affecting 6,300 people from seven different ethnic groups, of which very few had. no contact with the outside world. He and three other non-indigenous people trained indigenous patrollers to use drones and other technology to detect, photograph, and present evidence to illegal authorities.
“When it came to the help of the indigenous peoples, 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 at FUNAI who in 2019 prepared a dossier on illegal logging in indigenous lands of the Maranhao state. But afraid of being so outspoken under the new regime, he fled to Norway.
“I asked Norway for asylum because I knew the men I accused would have access to my name and kill me, just like what happened to Bruno,” Rao said.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly advocated for the exploitation of the vast wealth of indigenous lands, especially their mineral resources, and for the integration of indigenous peoples into society. He undertook not to grant any further protection of indigenous land, and said in April he would oppose a Supreme Court ruling if necessary. These positions directly opposed Pereira’s hopes for the Javari Valley.
Before taking leave, Pereira was removed as head of FUNAI’s isolated and recently contacted tribes division. The move came shortly after he ordered an operation to expel hundreds of illegal gold prospectors from an indigenous area in Roraima State. His post was soon filled by a former Evangelical missionary with an anthropological background. The choice caused outcry because some missionary groups had openly tried to contact and convert tribes whose voluntary isolation was protected by Brazilian law.
Key colleagues from Pereira at FUNAI have either followed his leadership and taken leave or been moved to bureaucratic positions far from the demarcation of protected countries, according to a recent report by the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies think tank and the non-profit organization Associated Indigenists, which former FUNAI staff.
“Of FUNAI’s 39 regional coordination offices, only two are managed by FUNAI staff members,” the report reads. “Seventeen military men, three policemen, two federal policemen and six professionals with no previous involvement in public administration have been named,” Bolsonaro said.
Route to the area
On the day they went missing, Pereira and Phillips slept at an outpost at the entrance of the main secret route to the area, without passing by the indigenous agency’s permanent base at its entrance, locals told the Associated Press said.
Two indigenous patrollers told the Associated Press the two were carrying cellphones from the surveillance project with photos of places where illegal fishermen were. Authorities said an illegal fishing network was a focus 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 ammunition typical of hunting.
Pereira’s killing will not stop the Javari area’s border demarcation project from continuing, says Manoel Chorimpa, a UNIVAJA member involved in the project. And in another sign that Pereira’s work will continue, indigenous patrollers’ surveillance 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 sections away from their home in Atalaia do Norte and their children. More recently, they have been living in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia.
The indigenous people of the region mourned over Pereira as a partner, and an old photo that has been widely shared on social media in recent days shows a group of them, shirtless, crowding behind Pereira while he for them pointing something at his laptop. A child leans gently on his shoulder.