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‘We’re not going to give Lula a free pass’: Q&A with Indigenous leader Beto Marubo

Beto in the Javari Valley, in 2022. Photo courtesy of Beto Marubo.

  • Despite his criticisms of the previous Workers’ Party (PT) administrations when it came to environmental issues, Beto Marubo, an Indigenous leader from Brazil, says he believes that the incoming president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will be able to make Brazil a major player on the world stage in climate and environmental matters again from 2023 onward.
  • Beto says he believes that pressure from civil society is more important than ever in ensuring the government-elect reassumes environmental protection commitments and in preventing the agribusiness lobby from sabotaging advances, as happened in Lula’s previous administrations.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Beto, a member of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), condemned the current government for the increases in deforestation and criminality in his region under its watch and reaffirmed his call for justice for the brutal murder of his friend Bruno Pereira and the journalist Dom Phillips in June this year.

Six months ago, more than 100 Indigenous people from five different ethnic groups entered the Itaquaí River, close to the city of Atalaia do Norte, in the Javari Valley, in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. The Indigenous men and women were searching for the Indigenist Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips, who, hours before, had gone missing in the region, in the far west of the state.

One of the men involved in the search parties — which started before the Brazilian authorities themselves had even begun looking for the missing men — was the Indigenous leader Beto Marubo, a member of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA). Beto was close friends with Pereira and had been working alongside him for years in their efforts to protect the region and, above all, the isolated Indigenous peoples who live in it.

Owing to its strategic location — on the border with Peru and close to Colombia — the Javari Valley has become one of the most dangerous places in the Amazon. “We have finally managed to get everyone to take notice of our woes. We have exposed how forgotten we are. … Now, the whole world knows that in the Javari Valley inaction and political denial reign, and the state is totally absent in our land,” Beto wrote in a farewell letter to Pereira, a few days after it was confirmed that the Indigenist and journalist had been brutally murdered.

Beto and Pereira on an expedition to make contact with Indigenous peoples from the Korubo ethnic group, in the Javari Valley, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Beto Marubo.

Since then, Beto — who has fought for decades to protect the people of the rainforest from illegal mining, drug trafficking and hundreds of other crimes — has been amplifying the voices of those who live in the communities of the Javari Valley, as well as continuing to fight for justice for the dead and speaking out against the neglect on the part of Funai — Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs — and the federal government. Having recently taken on a role as the coordinator of a technical working group on isolated Indigenous peoples for the transitional government, Beto sees the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a cause for hope for the future of the Amazon but knows that this is just the beginning of a long and arduous path.

The Indigenous leader, who did not spare the previous PT governments from his criticisms, says he believes the role of civil society is more important than ever in shaping the course taken by the new government in relation to environmental and social issues. In an exclusive video interview with Mongabay, carried out Nov. 25, Beto spoke about the levels of violence in the region where Pereira and Phillips were killed, gave his take on the current political landscape and looked forward to the possible futures lying ahead for the world’s largest tropical rainforest. Read the highlights of the interview, which have been edited for purposes of clarity, below.

Leia em português.


Mongabay: You were born in the Javari Valley, the region with the highest concentration of isolated peoples in the world, and have come to occupy a position of political importance on the national political landscape. How did this happen?

Beto Marubo: I left my village when I was 17 to learn how to speak Portuguese. This was a strategy used by the Marubo people because at the time we maintained some relations with the surrounding communities, but for commercial reasons. My family and a large number of other Marubo clans sold rubber. And we didn’t believe that we could trust in people; we were often cheated. So, at that time, the elders saw the need to have someone who could speak Portuguese, who knew numbers, so that we could have an equal relationship [with our commercial partners].

In this context, they chose some young people and sent them to study in the city of Cruzeiro do Sul, in the state of Acre. When I finished high school, I came back home but to work on the Indigenous movement, which at the time was coordinating a partnership with Funai to demarcate Indigenous lands. One of the tasks of the Indigenous movement was to have a technical coordinator to help the body of work that was being developed. That’s how I met Sydney Possuelo, who is one of the creators of the policy for the protection of isolated Indigenous peoples in Brazil, and Sydney invited me to work on the issue of isolated groups.

I was about 22 years old. A short while later I became the head of Funai’s inspection unit in Atalaia do Norte, and that’s where I first met Bruno [Pereira], and we started working closely together on everything. In 2014, I  became involved with the Javari Valley protection front. When Bolsonaro won the elections, I was called on by the Indigenous movement to start working in Brasilia. They decided to send me there in order to have someone physically representing them there because things were starting to become much more difficult. This was a clever move on their part, because it strengthened our position a lot. Instead of carrying out denunciations by letter or emails, it became a daily and face-to-face fight.

In a plenary session in Congress, discussing actions and strategies for the Brazilian government to present at the 26th Edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in October 2021. Photo courtesy of Cleia Viana/Câmara dos Deputados.

Mongabay: Tell us a little about the Javari Valley. The region captured the whole world’s attention with the murders of your friend, the Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira, and the British journalist Dom Phillips. They were working on an investigation into the worrying situation that has engulfed the region, where drug trafficking gangs today exert a strong influence.

Beto Marubo: It is the second largest Indigenous territory in Brazil. It is the only place in the world to hold such a wealth of references and information on Indigenous peoples living in isolation. The largest number of these people, living in relative isolation from society, is found in the Javari Valley. Another particularity is that Indigenous peoples in the region have shared territory with others for centuries. My family, for example, plants crops, and the isolated Indigenous peoples go there to harvest the bananas and make changes to the plants and other things from our fields.

This cultural and ethnic richness is a source of pride for our country, it is evidence that a noncontact policy is beneficial for our country. It is their choice [whether to establish contact or not]. I recently spoke with scientists from INPA [the National Institute of Amazonian Research], and they also explained to me the ecological importance of our region for our country and for the rest of the world, from a biodiversity standpoint and for climate issues. The Javari Valley is in a strategic region and serves as a bridge point for the flying rivers [of water vapor]. If you destroy this land, the water will not be able to reach the other regions of the country. The absence of the state, however, is almost total in this region, and this became more evident with the Bolsonaro government. They show no interest in, or concern for, protecting this land.

Mongabay: Was this already a problem before the Bolsonaro government took office?

Beto Marubo: Previous governments showed no interest in the region, and this became even more evident in the last four years. The Indigenous peoples are in a highly vulnerable state now, with some having been victims of land invasions. The weakening of Funai has led to another type of invasion that is just as dangerous for the Indigenous peoples as the loggers or the fishermen are: the fundamentalist missionaries.

I call them fundamentalists because they firmly believe that, if isolated Indigenous peoples are not subjected to evangelization, God will not return. We have already had to remove American missionaries from the Itaquaí River region who wanted to make contact with the isolated Indigenous peoples living there. This has been happening over the last few years, but especially under the Bolsonaro government. They [the government] even appointed a missionary to coordinate the isolated Indigenous sector and only dismissed him because of criticism in the press. But there was a great interest in evangelizing them. At least the Federal Court and, above all, the judiciary stopped this from happening.

Mongabay: December marks six months since the murders of Dom and Bruno. At this point, three people have been indicted and arrested for their participation in the murders but have yet to face trial. At the start of October, a decision by the Federal Court in the state of Amazonas granted the suspect accused of ordering the crime, Rubens Villar Coelho, also known as “Colombia,” the right to serve house arrest, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. Do you think that justice has been or is being done?

Beto Marubo: No, the only thing this does is to encourage the actions of criminal gangs inside Indigenous territories. Even Villar Coelho’s son, for example, has said that his dad was arrested but that he is acting normally and will not have to stop his work because of this. To put it another way: The financing of criminal gangs to invade Indigenous territories goes on as normal. The information that we have received from our surveillance team at UNIVAJA, which was trained by Bruno and has not stopped its activities [since his murder], is that the number of land invasions has not fallen. Quite the opposite: It has increased.

For me, some of the measures taken by the Federal Police and Ibama [Brazil’s environmental agency] were totally mediocre in relation to what one hopes for from the state. We hoped that, with the impact the murders caused and the importance of this region for our country, a centrally commanded task force would be a visible presence and work in the region on a short-, medium- and long-term basis. We tried to tell this to the attorney general of the republic, who was in Tabatinga and recognized this vulnerability, but there are still only two prosecutors from the Public Ministry working there.

I think that there should be a task force from the Federal Public Ministry working specifically on the investigations, alongside the Federal Police, Funai and the army. Not an ounce of justice has been reached. Another factor that is worth highlighting is that the judiciary has implicitly recognized that these criminal gangs are active in the region, and even so, the institutions that protect people, the inspection and public security forces are not taking the necessary measures. The justification offered by the federal judge working on the case to transfer the main suspects — who had confessed to murdering Dom and Bruno — to a federal prison was that he feared that the suspects would be killed by others in an attempt to destroy evidence. Organized criminal gangs are working on the border. And we’re there, with our chests puffed out, without any protection and with the state absolving itself completely of its responsibilities.

Beto and Bruno Pereira on an expedition to make contact with Indigenous peoples from the Korubo ethnic group, in the Javari Valley, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Beto Marubo.

Mongabay: As for your safety, have you been able to go back to your village, in the Javari Valley? How long has it been since you last saw your family?

Beto Marubo: No. The protection agencies themselves say that there is no guarantee of protection in the region. I haven’t seen them since the time of the search for Dom and Bruno. I and other leaders were not able to return to the area. We sought help from the protection agencies, but personal protection policies in Brazil are very weak.

Mongabay: Crime is now institutionalized in this region and others of the Amazon. The groups involved are powerful, multimillion-dollar factions with many interests. Do you think it is possible to overcome this scenario? And how long might this take?

Beto Marubo: The Brazilian state is already equipped with the expertise to do such a thing. The Javari Valley has a long history of problems, of aggression against Indigenous peoples and violence. In the 1990s, the situation was not much different than today’s, with organized criminal gangs operating in the area, illegally extracting timber, for example, which at the time was worth its weight in gold. Today it is the illegal products from hunting and fishing.

Organized criminal groups made and continue to make a lot of money from these activities. What happened was that the Brazilian state acted in a central, strong and decisive way. We had peace in the period between the 1990s and around 2010, 2011. We could see the Federal Police doing the necessary investigations at that time, led by delegate Mauro Espósito. I have a lot of respect for him, he was the superintendent in the Amazon and then Federal Police delegate in Tabatinga. He fought in a forceful way, using the Federal Police’s power together with Funai’s, acting together, also sharing information with Ibama and calling the army in for operations.

Mongabay: And what happened in 2011? How did this start to change? 

Beto Marubo: Funai started to be weakened. That’s why I say that you can’t forget the role of Funai in this current process of rescuing Brazil’s role as a leader on climate issues. As I already said, the Javari Valley is proof of Funai’s ability and capacity to carry out its work properly and coordinate with other bodies. It has the necessary expertise.

Mongabay: What is the importance of Funai for Brazil? And what needs to be done in order for it to go back to working and acting in a consistent manner?

Beto Marubo: I think that Funai is an organization of crucial importance to Brazil, I really believe this. In this new landscape, in which global demands are placed on Brazil to act in an environmentally responsible way, Funai is fundamental and it needs to be strengthened so that the government can keep Indigenous territories intact. This will happen by restructuring the organization, by employing a human resources team, and with the necessary budget allocation so that Funai can face what is currently a very complicated situation.

Today there are drug traffickers and organized criminal gangs operating inside Indigenous peoples’ homes, and Funai doesn’t have its police power regulated. The murders of Dom and Bruno in the Javari Valley are an example of the levels of activity that the criminal gangs, working hand in hand with drug traffickers, have in these territories. This is very clear and evident, for example, in the case of illegal mining activities on Yanomami land in the Javari Valley. I have also heard other concerning stories coming from the Acre region. These are national criminal organizations operating in these territories.

If the federal government does not fight this using all the power of the state in a forceful way, we are going to see here what you see happening in many Indigenous territories in Colombia. In order to combat this, Funai can no longer be a flowery inspection agency; it has to be invested with police power. I have worked in Funai and I am from the Amazon, and I see it as a strategic body.

Brazil is a country of continental proportions, and however much we believe in the Federal Police, it does not have the expertise to work with Indigenous peoples. The only body that has had this expertise for decades and was created for this purpose is Funai. During this current governmental transition period, I have had meetings with people from the federal police and others who work in public security, and all of them are unanimous in recognizing that, in order to have a confrontation in the Amazon region, the army, the air force, the navy, IBAMA and Funai need to participate.

Beto Marubo in New York during the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in April 2022. Photo courtesy of Beto Marubo.

Mongabay: Could the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, recently announced by President-elect Lula, help to consolidate this? 

Beto Marubo: The Bolsonaro government destroyed Ibama. As well as reducing its number of staff, all the technical norms that were in force at the time were destroyed. There needs to be a thorough restructuring of Ibama and ICMBio [the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation]. I see the ministry as an executive body that can centralize these policies that are dispersed across other ministries and public agencies. There are social, sustainability and environmental issues at play. The ideal would be to remove this from Funai and leave it with more specific attributions, like the demarcation of Indigenous territories, the protection of isolated Indigenous peoples, environmental inspection and licensing, georeferencing, cartography and other things. And everything else should be the responsibility of the ministry.

Mongabay: What was your reaction when you found out about the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples?

Beto Marubo: It is an important moment in the political history of Brazil, but I think that it was more of a strategic policy — and a correct one — by the Lula government, when you take into account the fact that currently Brazil doesn’t look good in relation to environmental protection issues. The government-elect realized that Indigenous are now much more empowered in terms of international social policy. To give one example, we held conversations with parliamentarians from the European Union about the situation in Brazil under the Bolsonaro government and did this to raise their awareness of why it wouldn’t be a good idea to sign the cooperation agreement with Mercosur that was on the table, and this helped to slow down this process.

He [Lula] took notice of this, and it was certainly a calculated step on his part, along the lines of, “We’re in a really bad place on the international stage, so what can we do to get off to a good start? Call in the Indigenous.” It’s going to be used for political bargaining. Another factor, on a pragmatic level, is that 13% of Brazilian territory is composed of Indigenous territories and, despite the impacts of the Bolsonaro administration, these areas do not show the same levels of deforestation as others.

However, the idea of Indigenous people as partners in this new context worries me a lot, because in the previous PT administrations many politically vocal leaders at the time — be they from Indigenous social movements or not — became part of the government, and this weakened the social movements. Many of them started saying what the government wanted them to say. The main example of where this political and social anomaly [can lead] was in the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, [which is now] a great white elephant that is not fulfilling the purpose for which it was intended.

According to the information we have, only a few of the total number of turbines that were supposed to work are actually working. The environmental liabilities and the environmental and social problems that directly affected the Indigenous communities are felt to this day and cannot be reversed. All of this stemmed from a political decision made at the time that was only possible because of the weakening of the social movements, and I am worried that this will happen again. I was talking to some elders from my community, and they told me that they are very happy that Bolsonaro will no longer be in power, but that they are worried for our Indigenous leaders.

Mongabay: Do you not believe that it is possible to be part of the government while maintaining a critical eye on its activities?

Beto Marubo: Definitely, but we need to be aware of this. We need to realize that just because we supported Lula’s election campaign, we’re not going to give the new government a free pass. We are going to make demands, we are going to be forceful, above all, because of the past history of the PT.

Mongabay: Many organizations from the third sector and civil society are celebrating Lula’s election. How do you, having worked in Funai over recent years, view the performance of previous PT governments?

Beto Marubo: There was a weakening of social movements, including the Indigenous movement. Many of the government’s policies, some of which were antisocial and antienvironmental, came to pass. The stimulation of the agribusiness sector was important at the time. The same agribusiness interests that are today against the Lula government were themselves very much fomented by him, to the point that they became monsters for Lula himself, with their support and financing of the antidemocratic acts that we are seeing.

In the Dilma government, the same weakening of environmental policies and support for agribusiness movements took place. It wasn’t a total retreat, as we have seen in the current government, but there was some movement in that direction. There was a year in which the Lula government made a move to strengthen Funai, holding a recruitment drive after decades, but when it came time to hire them, they could not really strengthen it, because they only offered positions to a part of them.

There was a strong confrontation with agribusiness at the time, and what we saw was that the government gave in. Of the 3,000 vacancies that were opened, only about 800 were filled. This weakened Funai too much, to the point of near extinction in the Bolsonaro government. A reflection of this policy of the PT governments was the resignation of Marina Silva [In May 2008, Marina Silva, then environment minister, resigned]. That’s why I always say that the one who validated this new government with this new pro-environment vision was Marina Silva, who has conciliated with Lula.

Mongabay: Recently, UNIVAJA spoke to the press in order to criticize the transitional government’s lack of coordination with certain sectors, such as representatives of isolated Indigenous peoples. Can you explain what the motivation for this criticism was and what has been done since then? 

Beto Marubo: We were very worried because the transition came and we wanted to really make a point of highlighting the importance of protection policies for isolated Indigenous peoples. That is what Bruno gave his life for. Not every Indigenist or every every Indigenous person can talk in an informed manner on the question of isolation. Only those who have had some experience of it really know. It’s something very specific, and that’s what our concern was about, that they hadn’t called us for anything at all.

So we went to the press, and a few days later I received a call from the transitional government inviting me to come and take part in the conversations. Bia, Bruno’s wife, and I recently had a meeting with Lula in Belém do Pará. In the conversations that we had, I made it clear that I had no interest in any kind of official role; that what interested me was dealing with the issue of “isolated Indigenous peoples” with the level of detail that it deserves, and that I know a lot about this topic. I am worried about the way that it is being carried out.

Beto in the Javari Valley, in 2022. Photo courtesy of Beto Marubo.

Mongabay: What has worried you about it?

Beto Marubo: There are great expectations about changing policies and procedures that have been in place for decades, and this just can’t be solved that quickly. New studies and analyses about Indigenous policies — which are very fragmented — need to be carried out. There are policies to assist Indigenous people in the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Justice and several others. This can be improved now that we have a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, but this needs to be done without leaving Funai in a vulnerable position.

Mongabay: Why might Funai be left vulnerable by the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples?

Beto Marubo: Funai is currently part of the Ministry of Justice, and I would advocate for it to continue like that. As someone who worked there for 10 years, I know that the entire legal and judicial framework is tied to the Ministry of Justice, especially on issues of the demarcation and protection of Indigenous territories and with regard to land issues. Decree 1775, for example, which allows for the demarcation of Indigenous territories and is completely based on the consideration of Funai as part of the Ministry of Justice. The creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples is a political decision, so it could also be undone by another government administration in the future, and since this has been a desire for decades on the part of different government administrations to do away with Funai, it would be much easier to do it this way [if it were subsumed into the new ministry].

Mongabay: Is this what is being outlined in these conversations with the transitional government?

Beto Marubo: These kinds of conversations are yet to take place, also because we still don’t really know what this new ministry will look like; all of this still needs to be thought out.

Mongabay: What is being talked about in the meetings with the transition teams? What points are being discussed?

Beto Marubo: For now, I am working specifically on the question of isolated Indigenous peoples. I have even been given the task to coordinate, as the Indigenous movement, issues related specifically to the policy for the protection of isolated Indigenous groups. The group I am working with counts on a number of technicians. We are going to put forward ideas such as subsidies, suggestions for improvements and other ideas so that, starting in January, this will be implemented. That is what we hope for.

Mongabay: There are a number of studies that show that the Amazon is nearing a point of “no return,” in that the rainforest will no longer have the capacity to recover from the destruction being waged against it. Research even suggests that some areas are already entering a process of savannization. Do you, as people who live there, already feel these changes taking place? 

Beto Marubo: According to our elders and our community leaders who live in direct contact with the rainforest, deep in our territory, one of the factors that they have noticed is the increasing temperatures, with one of the consequences of this being that hunting becomes more difficult in the summer. It is an area of 8.5 million hectares [21 million acres]; there is no supermarket where we go and buy meat. We have to hunt to survive. With higher temperatures, the forest floor dries out and leaves fall from the trees, so when we go out on a hunt, as soon as we get near an animal, it hears us and runs away.

This is a clear example of how this has affected our villages. It can also be seen in the fact that certain species of trees that are vital for certain species of animals no longer produce the same amount of fruit that they normally would. These are examples from those who live in the middle of the rainforest, in the middle of the Amazon. There is a dry period, which normally affects the river, but what is happening now is that the rivers are drying up a worrying amount, and huge numbers of fish die when they dry up, creating a lack of food sources for a region in which this is vital.

Mongabay: We are heading into a new period for Brazil, with the election of President Lula, and a new future beckons for the Amazon. Do you look at this new phase with hope?

Beto Marubo: Yes, and my hope exists because there are leaders who have shown in previous governments — among them Marina Silva — a serious commitment to environmental issues, and they are back again. Recently, Lula himself raised expectations greatly among the international community when talking about protecting the Amazon, and this means GDP, it means dollars and economy. Could you imagine the entirety of the world boycotting Brazil, were Lula to change his mind? So all these factors and this context consolidates the hope with which we look to the future.


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