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‘We lost the biggest ally’: Nelly Marubo on her friend Bruno Pereira’s legacy

Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira (left) and Nelly Marubo.

Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira (left) and Nelly Marubo. Images courtesy of (left) Daniel Marenco/Agência O Globo and (right) Max Baring.

  • In June 2022, Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were brutally murdered in the Brazilian Amazon. Mongabay interviewed Nelly Marubo, friend and colleague of Pereira, giving us a sense of who Pereira was from an Indigenous point of view and how he was perceived by the Indigenous people in the area where he was killed.
  • Nelly says Pereira first learned from the Marubo and other Indigenous groups how they were patrolling their Indigenous territories; then he introduced modern technologies to help them in their work.
  • Nelly rejects the idea that Indigenous experts like Bruno were leading Indigenous groups into conflict with the outside world; rather, he was responding to the urgent needs of the Marubo and other groups across Brazil.
  • For her, Pereira has left a strong legacy among the Indigenous Marubo youth.

ST ANDREWS, Scotland — This autumn, Mongabay had the opportunity to interview Nelly Marubo, friend and colleague of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who was brutally murdered in the Brazilian Amazon in June 2022, along with British journalist Dom Phillips.

Nelly is one of a new generation of Indigenous anthropologists, born in the forest but educated to university level. This interview was a chance to get a sense of who Pereira was from an Indigenous point of view and how he was perceived by the Indigenous people in the area where he was killed.

Born in the Javari Valley, Marubo says she had been a friend and colleague of Pereira since they met in 2010 when he started working in the region. In this video interview, she tells us how she was surprised to meet Pereira in Atalaia do Norte the day before his murder — and how desperate she was after learning the news of his disappearance — as she was aware of the threats and persecution he was facing in the region.

“I told him that he couldn’t be there,” Nelly tells Mongabay during her visit to the UK as part of the project “Amplifying Amerindian Voices,” supported by the impact fund from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. “We knew something was going to happen.

But we didn’t know in what way.”

In tears, Nelly describes the terrible desperation she felt when she was told, “Bruno didn’t arrive,” and she received no response from him. “We thought the worst. But we thought he was tied up, that he was hidden somewhere, that we might find him,” she says. “At that moment, it was terrible. We imagined him suffering.”

Nelly says they had worked together and remained friends and collaborators ever since. “He was also my ally, to take my mother to do pajelança [Indigenous healing practices] in the village, in the city. And to take me to any emergency, to take my mother to the hospital.”

She says it is clear that Pereira’s work with the Amazon’s Indigenous groups was not just a job, it was a calling. “Bruno, he was, since he arrived, always wanting to have a stronger link with the … village leaders. So, he always had this desire for a stronger connection. He always wanted to be there with the people from the village, not the ones in the city.”

Nelly calls her Indigenous people the Yura Rasi, or the body people.  To the rest of the world, they are known as the Marubo — a contacted Indigenous group that lives in the Javari Valley, in Amazonas state, a region shared with the recently contacted Kurubo people and 24 uncontacted Indigenous groups still living traditional nomadic hunter-gatherer lives deep in the rainforests of Brazil’s western Amazon.

Pereira was working as a guide and motorista (boatman) for Phillips, who was busy researching and writing a book provisionally titled “How to Save the Amazon.”

On the face of it, Pereira was considered the ideal man to help Phillips — he knew the region well, as he’d worked there for many years. In reality, however, his work had made him and his colleagues many enemies among those who wished to exploit the Javari Valley’s natural resources and to take advantage of its secluded and remote location, Indigenous people say.

Bruno Pereira in an interview with Max Baring and Mongabay’s contributing editor Karla Mendes in February 2019, despite restrictions on talking to the media imposed by the former government of Jair Bolsonaro. Image by Max Baring for Mongabay.
The murder of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips sparked international outrage. Protesters demand justice in Washington, D.C. To date, nobody has been convicted for their murders. Image © Tim Aubry/Greenpeace.

Pereira was one of Brazil’s most expert and experienced Indigenistas — a professional who worked at Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai.  It was his job to manage the delicate relationship between the Amazon’s remaining uncontacted groups and the outside world.

However, like IBAMA, Brazil’s environment agency, Funai had been hollowed out under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power in January 2019. In the following month, Pereira told this reporter and Mongabay’s contributing editor Karla Mendes at his office in Brasília: “The state is constitutionally obliged to demarcate Indigenous lands. The Supreme Court also guarantees it. Whoever is responsible for land demarcation, they must still fulfil this constitutional right. Everyone gets a bit anxious with these changes, but we keep doing our job.” He spoke to us while we were co-directing and co-producing a documentary film about the Guardians of the Forest, a group of Guajajara Indigenous people who risk their lives to protect their Arariboia reserve, in northern Maranhão state, against illegal loggers and also to protect the Awá isolated Indigenous people who live in the same territory.

However, Pereira had reportedly found it harder and harder to do his job amid the anti-Indigenous atmosphere whipped up by Bolsonaro, who famously vowed not to demarcate even one more centimeter of land to Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. In 2019 Marcelo Xavier da Silva was put in charge of Funai despite having a history of working and campaigning against Indigenous interests and being seen as more of a friend to the agricultural lobby than to Brazil’s Indigenous people. Eventually, Pereira took a leave of absence from Funai, probably hoping to return when Brazil’s political winds were blowing in a more friendly direction. He devoted his time instead to helping journalists like Dom Phillips report from the Amazon.

For Nelly, Pereira was also someone clearly more driven by fieldwork than paperwork, and increasing the fieldwork part of his job meant monitoring, surveillance and preventing illegal miners, hunters and fishers invading this remote Amazon region. “He didn’t like to work in administration very much. He said it wasn’t for him. He really wanted to go to the protection front.”

Over the years, Nelly goes on, Pereira’s role in the Indigenous communities where he worked shifted. “He worked doing territorial control, training the boys, together with them. First he went to learn. Then [they] started strategizing together, seeing the map, how were they going to survey the territory.”

Mongabay spoke with Indigenous anthropologist Nelly Marubo, friend and colleague of Bruno Pereira at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Image by Max Baring for Mongabay.

Pereira’s legacy

As time passed, Nelly describes, Pereira began training his Indigenous enforcement partners in the use of modern technologies. “The preparation of the use of the GPS, the use of the drone. So, all of that. He made it so that all the Indigenous youth could do the work.”

Studies have shown that Indigenous people are the best custodians of the Amazon, so they will need to retain an awareness of the fundamental importance of the job they are doing, experts say. As Mongabay recently reported, some Yanomami communities have been tempted to join illegal activities for personal gain. According to Nelly, Pereira understood this well. “He made it so that all the Indigenous youth … could see with their own eyes the importance of monitoring. What is monitoring? … What is important to monitor? He made the Indigenous youth express why they wanted to do enforcement, why it is important.”

Nelly sees that Pereira’s work had a real empowering impact on the ground within the communities where he worked: “Many Indigenous people from various ethnic groups also passed through to work within the movement. … So, we are living much more the strength of the ethnic groups.”

Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira working with the Indigenous Guajajara, known as Guardians of the Forest, in the Arariboia Indigenous Territory, in northeastern Maranhão state. Image courtesy of Survival International.

Indigenous groups have been engaged for decades in a struggle for the demarcation of their lands, which, despite being constitutionally guaranteed, are often invaded by illegal loggers, hunters, ranchers, cocaine growers and gold miners. It falls to Indigenistas like Pereira to help Indigenous groups like the Marubo manage their relationship with the outside world and the Brazilian state — one of Funai’s missions. However, Indigenistas like Pereira are sometimes accused by the likes of Bolsonaro of whipping up Indigenous communities and putting ideas into their heads, an idea that Nelly strongly rejects. “He [Bolsonaro] is always saying that the Indigenous people don’t think [for themselves]. The Indigenous people are making a big fuss because of the Indigenistas. But actually, it’s us who do it.  We are the ones who pressure the Indigenistas to support us.”

And for Nelly and the Indigenous people whom Pereira’s life touched, there is no sign they will be giving up their struggle for their constitutionally guaranteed lands: “All the people who are guardians of the forest are dependent on the enforcement part. So, that’s what he gave to us. I see that young people value today. Always, anything they do, they mention it,” she says. “If he gave this to us, we must pass it on to other young people. Whether we die or live, we must protect it.”

In our February 2019 interview, an embattled Pereira clearly stated his hopes for the Amazon. “This is what we expect: that illegal logging comes to an end. That those who set fire in the forest go to jail,” he told us, despite restrictions from the Bolsonaro government that prohibited Funai’s officials from talking to the press. “That the government closes the roads that give access to logging in Indigenous land. That a new economic perspective is brought to the region.”

Almost exactly four years later, these are the demands that the new government of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will have to live up to.

“We lost the biggest ally” Nelly says, referring to Pereira’s legacy to Indigenous people.

Editor’s note: After seven months of Pereira’s and Phillips’ murders, the Federal Police in Amazonas revealed on Jan. 23 the alleged mastermind behind the crimes: Rubens Villar Coelho, known as Colômbia, who is under accusations of leading an illegal fishing business in the region.

Banner image: Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira (left) and Nelly Marubo. Images courtesy of (left) Daniel Marenco/Agência O Globo and (right) Max Baring.

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Violence persists in Amazon region where Pereira and Phillips were killed

Citation:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ; Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latina America and the Caribbean. (2021). Forest governance by Indigenous and tribal peoples: An opportunity for climate action in Latin America and the Caribbean. Food & Agriculture Org.