Site icon Conservation news

Violence persists in Amazon region where Pereira and Phillips were killed

The Matis people made their first official contact with the outside world at the end of 1970.

The Matis people made their first official contact with the outside world at the end of 1970, leading to a series of epidemics that killed dozens of their members. They were involved in the initial search party for Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips at the start of June. Image © Fiona Watson/Survival International.

  • Armed illegal gold miners on July 15 threatened government rangers near the site where British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were killed in June.
  • Days after the threats, federal prosecutors charged three men in the killing of Phillips and Pereira, but activists and lawmakers say the investigation needs to be expanded to identify the possible involvement of criminal organizations.
  • Activists say threats against government officials, including Pereira, have happened for decades, but that the situation has grown dire under President Jair Bolsonaro.
  • The government’s weakening of environmental agencies and Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous rhetoric have created a sense of impunity, emboldening criminals in the Amazon to retaliate against activists and environmentalists who expose their illicit activities, experts say.

Less than two months since the killing of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in early June, armed illegal gold miners reportedly intimidated government rangers near the remote Amazon region where the pair were killed. Indigenous leaders say this ongoing reign of violence poses a grave danger to those working and living in the Vale do Javari region.

On July 15, two armed men reportedly arrived at the ranger base of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, on the Jandiatuba River. The men, brandishing shotguns, demanded to know how many people were working there, and appeared to have “a clear intention to harass the workers,” according to a statement from the Union of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Peoples (UNIVAJA).

Two days after the reported harassment, Leandro Ribeiro do Amaral, the coordinator at Funai’s base in the region, resigned amid reportedly growing tension and violent threats in the region. It’s the sixth time the coordinator position in the Vale do Javari base has changed hands in the last three years.

In March, the Union of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Peoples (UNIVAJA) recorded an increase in illegal mining rafts along the rivers that course through the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, including the Jandiatuba River. Image courtesy of UNIVAJA.

Funai officials at the Jandiatuba base work to protect the well-being of Indigenous communities inside the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, both those with contact with the outside world and those that have chosen to remain isolated. The reserve is the second-largest in Brazil, covering 85,444 square kilometres (32,990 square miles) — an area nearly the size of former colonial power Portugal. It lies in the far western corner of the Brazilian Amazon, a region that’s home to the largest concentration of uncontacted peoples in the world, believed to number about 17, who have had very little to no contact with the outside world.

But the area is also reportedly dominated by powerful criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking, illegal fishing, logging and mining, who threaten and intimidate the Indigenous people and environmentalists who expose the illicit activities in the region. Between Feb. 24 and March 18, Funai reported 19 illegal mining rafts along the Jandiatuba River and evidence of illegal timber extraction near where isolated Indigenous peoples live, according to the UNIVAJA statement.

Although threats against government officials in Brazil’s environmental sector “have always happened,” they’ve become more frequent recently, according to Jose Augusto Morelli, an environmental analyst who used to run the air operations center responsible for environmental inspection at IBAMA, Brazil’s environment protection agency.

The Marubo people live in the Vale do Javari region, in northern Amazonas state, and worked closely alongside Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira to identify evidence of criminal activity in the region. They were among the Indigenous search party who scoured the forests and rivers for Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips after the pair first disappeared. Image © Fiona Watson/Survival International.

“The Funai employees, the Indigenous people and Indigenists who work [in Vale do Javari] have been unprotected for a long time,” Morelli told Mongabay by phone. “But now people feel almost encouraged to carry out these attacks because they have a sense of impunity that is dominating this scenario of environmental crime in Brazil.”

Funai did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Perpetrators of crimes against environment activists and land defenders are rarely brought to justice in Brazil. Since 2009, there have been more than 300 deaths related to land conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon. Just 14 of those killings, or 5%, were brought to court.

In the Vale do Javari region, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a former Funai worker, was shot dead in September 2019 in what his family told national newspaper Globo was retaliation for his reports of illegal activity in the area. No one has been charged in the case.

An aerial shot of a longhouse belonging to an isolated Indigenous group in the Vale do Javari region, in northern Amazonas state, home to the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted peoples. The longhouse is typically made of wood and plant fibers and houses several family members. Image courtesy of © CGIIRC/Funai.

Bruno Pereira, also a Funai veteran, had reported illegal fishing taking place in the region, which led to confrontations with local fishermen and multiple threats, according to activists. In an audio recording sent to the Indigenous rights advocacy NGO Survival International before his death, Pereira commented on the violence by illegal miners operating in the region near the isolated groups. “The persecution and intimidation are not only directed at me. There are many people with me,” he said. “But all of this will pass, I hope.”

In July, federal prosecutors charged three local men for allegedly killing Pereira over the incriminating evidence he had on illegal fishing in the region. They said Phillips was killed “only because of being with Bruno, in order to ensure impunity for their prior crime,” according to the prosecutors’ statement.

Despite the charges against the alleged killers of Pereira and Phillips, critics say investigations must continue. On July 22, 23 members of the U.S. Congress published a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to publicly call on Brazil to conduct a deeper investigation into the criminal organizations that could also be behind the deaths.

“I hope the investigations continue because, while those charged were directly involved in the pair’s death, the question is, did they act alone or is there a larger network that’s behind these murders?” Francisco Loebens, a regional support team agent with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay by phone. “The impression is that they didn’t act alone.”

Eliésio Marubo, a lawyer for the Union of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Peoples (UNIVAJA), traveled to Washington, D.C., to gather support from the U.S. Congress for accountability in the killing of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, as well as to raise awareness of the ongoing criminal activity and violence in Vale do Javari. Image © Tim Aubry/Greenpeace.

Asked for more information about any further investigations, the Ministry of Justice directed Mongabay to the Federal Police in Amazonas state. The police did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Illegal mining, fishing and logging, along with drug trafficking and violence against land defenders have all escalated in the Brazilian Amazon under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. Since taking office at the start of 2019, the government has gutted environmental protection agencies such as Funai and IBAMA, and pushed for the commercial exploitation of Indigenous lands.

Bolsonaro’s outspoken views on Indigenous people and the environment have been key to the rising sense of impunity fueling the escalation of threats in the Vale do Javari region and the wider Brazilian Amazon, experts say.

“For me it is very clear that these [criminals] are more daring because they feel somehow protected. They are protected by the presidency of the republic, which from the beginning has said that it would not demarcate Indigenous lands,” Sydney Possuelo, a former head of Funai, said in a roundtable interview in June. “These declarations from the president, on several occasions, give the invader power.”

Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who helped the Union of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Peoples (UNIVAJA) monitor criminal activity in Vale do Javari region, in Amazonas state, had reported an increase in illegal mining in the area in March. Pereira, UNIVAJA and Funai identified several mining rafts along rivers within protected Indigenous land. Image courtesy of UNIVAJA.

In 2019, Bolsonaro appointed Marcelo Xavier, a former Federal Police officer, as the new head of Funai. The decision that was met with strong criticism from Indigenous rights advocates, who said Xavier favored the development of agribusiness over the protection of Indigenous rights.

The controversy peaked this July when Ricardo Rao, a former Funai official, accused Xavier of playing a part in the killing of Pereira and Phillip murders during an Indigenous advocacy event in Madrid. “This man doesn’t belong here,” Rao can be heard saying in a video he posted on Twitter, in which he can be seen pointing at Xavier during an Indigenous advocacy event in Madrid. “Marcelo Xavier is a militiaman. This man is responsible for the deaths of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips,” he added, before Xavier left the room.

Funai released a statement condemning the accusations against Xavier, saying that “such attitudes are irresponsible, violent and undemocratic” and that the agency’s head “chose to leave the venue voluntarily, given the hostile and aggressive attitude of the protester.” Funai added it would take legal action for what it called moral damages.

“Marcelo is an ally of the farmers, who as well as operating [in the Amazon], are also present in Indigenous lands in Mato Grosso do Sul,” Loebens said. “[His appointment] transformed Funai to be at the service of the landholders, and not the protection service of Indigenous peoples’ territory, which is the purpose it was created for.”

Loebens said the risk of further threats and violence in the region is inevitable due to the lack of security, which puts Funai workers and Indigenous people at serious risk. “There is no movement toward structuring these [Funai ranger] bases so they have the possibility of offering security to those who live and work there,” Loebens said. “The possibility of other deaths happening is huge.”

The Matsé are one of several different Indigenous peoples living in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, in northern Amazonas state, a sprawling reserve nearly the size of Portugal. Image © Fiona Watson/Survival International.

Banner image: The Matis people made their first official contact with the outside world at the end of 1970, leading to a series of epidemics that killed dozens of their members. They were involved in the initial search party for Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips at the start of June. Image © Fiona Watson/Survival International.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.