We’d planned for some time to write about the politics of Indigenous protection in Brazil. How dangerous this has become. Now, there are two more victims in the story, journalist Dom Phillips and his friend, defender of Indigenous rights, Bruno Pereira. Their deaths are tragic confirmation, if such a thing were needed, that President Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s response after they disappeared, “Anything can happen”, was a threat rather than a lament. The murderers of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira weren’t just some illegal fishermen in a remote part of the jungle. Responsibility also lies with an exceptionally criminal system called a “government”.
In a 2019 article, Dom Phillips quoted a Macuxi spokesman, Edinho de Souza, “We are not fighting the farmer, a little garimpeiro. We are fighting the government.” As Indigenous people and environmental defenders know, “The bullets that kill journalists, activists and Indigenous people in Amazonia are bought with money from land grabs, illegal mining and logging”, high priorities of the Bolsonaro government. Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips were murdered in the remote Amazon region of Vale do Javari, Brazil’s second largest Indigenous territory, near the borders with Peru and Colombia, home to more uncontacted tribes (who reject contact) than anywhere else in the world, and also an extremely violent place because of illegal mining, logging, drug, and poaching activities. However tragic these two murders are in themselves, they’re even worse because of what they represent: the danger to anyone who tries to protect the Amazon and its peoples.
In fact, Bolsonaro himself, delaying the search efforts and callously attempting to blame the two men for their fate, actually obeyed the compulsion to confess what Edinho de Souza and his people know all too well: “Really two people just on a boat, in a region like that, completely wild, is an adventure that is not recommended to do … Anything can happen.” If the region is “completely wild”, the Bolsonaro government has done everything possible to make it so. If defending Indigenous rights is an “adventure”, he’s proclaiming his contempt for Indigenous rights. If Phillips was “disliked” in the region, as Bolsonaro claims, the question is who disliked him (no prizes for guessing the answer: the government and its henchmen). Finally, the mainstream press, which prominently reported politicians like Boris Johnson and other eminences as expressing “deep concern” about the two men, mostly gave said concerned eminences more coverage than the valuable work Pereira and Phillips were doing. Their deaths were reported, arrests were reported, but there was little attempt to explain why they were killed and, going up the chain of responsibility, who wanted this. Bolsonaro can feel that his threat is successful.
Since the climate crisis and impending demise of the planet aren’t as sexy as the Amber and Johnny show, and since the media must always present new stories, what both men were passionately devoted to, the inseparable issues of the ravaged rainforest and Indigenous rights, will soon vanish under the weight of, say, reports on the soon-to-be G7 blatherskite fest in some Bavarian schlöss. Yet what they gave their lives to is the crucial issue embedded in all the grief over their brutal murders, not only for identifying who is really responsible for their deaths and why, but also because their work is an example to follow for anyone who’s concerned about human rights and the extremely grave matter of the fate of the Amazon and thus of the planet.
Unsurprisingly, the police claim the killers acted alone. A poacher called Amarildo da Costa Oliveira (or Pelado) has been arrested and, at the time of writing, the police say there are other suspects. The day before the murders, when patrolling for poachers, Pereira, Phillips, and a team from Univaja (Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley) had been threatened by Pelado and other men. A few days earlier, reports by Indigenous teams had led to confiscation of illegal catches, and Pereira had given the police and officials from the Ministry of Justice detailed information about an international criminal network involved in illegal fishing and poaching, a venture that is reportedly controlled at an even higher level by drug traffickers. Univaja emphasises that the authorities habitually ignored complaints about the activities of criminal gangs, that the crime was well planned, and that “a powerful criminal organisation (had) tried at all costs to cover its tracks during the investigation” of the double murder. It also states that it reported Pelado for illegal fishing last April and recalls that, in 2018 and 2019, he’d fired on a base of FUNAI National Indian Foundation—the government body that is responsible for policies relating to Indigenous peoples—which Pereira was working for at the time. The murders are understood in the Javari Valley as a symbolic attack on anyone who represents what (some employees of) FUNAI, Univaja, and other Indigenous organisations stand for, and of course on the Indigenous peoples themselves.
FUNAI is central to the story because it shows how responsibility for lawlessness in the Amazon lies more in the corridors of power in Brasília than in remote reaches of rainforest rivers. Bolsonaro has eviscerated FUNAI, turning it from an organisation that is legally responsible for protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples into something more like a Pogrom Department. Vice-President General Hamilton Mourão inadvertently drew attention to this loathing at the very top of anything Indigenous when he supported the police version of the murders, but couldn’t resist adding a few mobster-like frills of his own. The killers were angry, drunk river traders, he said, and such “situations” are “common” outside the big towns. He dismissed Dom Phillips’ death as “collateral damage”. He’d merely “snuck into” the story. As if he’d never written a single article exposing the government’s plans for the Amazon. The real target, the general declared, was Bruno Pereira. People with a bit of memory will recall that Pereira was detested by the powers-that-be, the bullet, beef, and Bible caucus. He was sacked as head of FUNAI’s General Coordination Unit of Uncontacted Indians (CGII), by none other than the (at the time) Justice Minister, Sergio Moro—the former judge who illegally arrested President Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula) in 2018 to favour candidate Bolsonaro, son of a garimpeiro and public enemy of Indigenous people—shortly after he led an operation that resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of garimpeiros from Indigenous territory in Roraima state.
The new head of CGII is a former evangelical missionary who is hellbent on “contacting” the tribes Pereira worked so hard to protect. A recent report by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies and the NGO Associated Indigenists shows that only two of FUNAI’s 39 regional offices are headed by its own staff. Military men, police, and people with no prior experience in the field have been put in charge of the rest. Many of the agency’s experts trying to protect Indigenous people have been fired, persecuted, or discredited by its new administrators. Established in 1987, the CGII was founded by the explorer, activist, and ethnographer Sydney Possuelo who’d witnessed the death and disease caused by government missions that forcibly contacted previously isolated tribes. He made major changes to government policy, and the previous strategy of eventual “integration” was replaced by one recognising the right of Indigenous peoples to remain isolated. The CGII is theoretically responsible for protecting 14 million hectares (larger than the area of Spain) of isolated Indigenous territory.
FUNAI was preceded by the Indian Protection Service (SPI), founded in 1910 during the Amazon rubber boom, with the ostensible aim of integrating Indians into “mainstream” society but without bothering to hide other intentions of taking over their lands and countering the influence of the Catholic church. It soon became yet another nidus of red tape and corruption, which then morphed into unchecked brutality by SPI officials, as denounced in 1967 with the 7,000-page Figueiredo Report, authored by the then Attorney General Jader Figueiredo Correia. This caused an international outcry (especially following Norman Lewis’s 1969 Sunday Times article titled “Genocide”) since it revealed horrendous crimes—including mass murder, torture, enslavement, bacteriological warfare, sexual abuse, human hunts, poisoning, and land theft—against the Indigenous population by landowners and the IPS itself. Some tribes were exterminated, and others decimated. After 1968, Figueiredo was persecuted by the regime and died in a mysterious accident that was never properly investigated. With the military dictatorship’s AI-5 (Institutional Act No 5), which inaugurated Brazil’s “Years of Lead” and institutionalised torture, censorship, and repression, the Figueiredo Report was gagged. It “disappeared” for 45 years, supposedly in a fire in the Ministry of Agriculture (a fitting home for it, the generals thought), but was eventually rediscovered in Rio de Janeiro’s Museu do Índio in 2013, after which it has again lain almost dormant.
With Law 5,371 of 1973, Brazil’s Indigenous peoples were placed under the protection of FUNAI, so that the Amazon and the people would “contribute economically” to the state of Brazil. Hence, from its inception, FUNAI’s role was ambiguous and depended on the kind of government in office. It could protect Indigenous people as a government agency but could also act contrary to their welfare in the “national interest”, for example by issuing private licences for mining on Indigenous land or, in the early 1970s, by building the trans-Amazonian highway to the border with Peru, thus allowing extractive access to previously unreachable parts of the jungle. In large part thanks to the work of Sydney Possuelo, the situation seemed to improve when the 1988 Constitution recognised that Indigenous peoples shouldn’t be forced to assimilate and, in Article 231, defined their land rights, stipulating FUNAI’s responsibility to demarcate their territories within five years. But, by 1993, only about 50% had been delimited. In 1996, President Cardoso passed Decree 1775, the “genocide decree”, which allowed commercial interests to contest demarcated land and, in 2009, President Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula) signed the FUNAI Statute (Presidential Decree 7056), which closed hundreds of FUNAI offices and posts, thus violating ILO Convention 169 which requires the government to discuss legal changes affecting indigenous populations. Nevertheless, his government did approve 81 applications for demarcation.
Only hours after taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro moved FUNAI from being under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice to answer to his own purpose-built travesty, the Ministry of Human Rights, Family and Women, headed by the family-values evangelical Damares Alves, who has a master’s degree “granted by my church” and was also granted a vision of Jesus on top of a guava tree. It’s also widely reported that she uses her religious group’s campaigns against alleged infanticide to incite hatred of Indigenous peoples, and that she illegally “adopted” a child from Kamayurá village of the Xingu Indigenous reserve, whose people say she was taken under false pretences of seeking dental treatment. As if Damares Alves weren’t bad enough, Bolsonaro gave FUNAI’s constitutionally enshrined demarcation task to the Ministry of Agriculture, “an active stakeholder in this policy of deconstructing the State, rights and control mechanisms and aiming to expand the useful territorial extension of the sector”, which “has authorized the use of pesticides and many other dangerous measures that guarantee the interests of the rural caucus”. Almost immediately after this move, Indigenous organisations began reporting murders, attacks, deforestation, arson, and threats to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (since the Brazilian human rights ministry was among the offenders). And, again, Dom Phillips reported on what was really going on when Bolsonaro set the “rat’s nest … on fire” by appointing former police officer Marcelo Xavier da Silva, who is closely associated with agribusiness, to head FUNAI. This man is known as someone who “froths hate” for Indigenous people and sees FUNAI as “an obstacle to national development”.
Bolsonaro has warped and crippled not only FUNAI but also the Ministry of the Environment, its sustainable development section Ibama, the institute for monitoring deforestation, Inpe, and the Chico Mendes (murdered in 1988) Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. In other words, he’s opening up the Amazon to extractive industries, allowing more pesticides, and encouraging landgrabs by dismantling all kinds of environmental protection. In 2020 alone he changed 593 regulations relating to the environment. Monica Sodré, director of the Network for Political Action on Sustainability notes that, although these processes didn’t start with the Bolsonaro government, they’ve become much more vicious because it’s not just a matter of sabotaging laws, but “with this rhetoric of saying absolutely anything, it encourages illegality and acts like (the killing of Bruno and Dom).” Add to their deaths those recorded by the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety, the 8,729 people of the Amazon region who died intentional violent deaths in 2020 (that’s 24 per day), “most of them related to agrarian and environmental conflicts”, especially in the Javari Valley. Further detailed information about the violence wrought against Indigenous peoples is given in the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI) reports covering violence against property, the person, against isolated peoples, and that resulting from public policies, as well as fires, imprisonment, the Indigenous budget, and Bolsonaro’s policies. Meanwhile, giving the new record figure of 430 cases in 2021 of violence against journalists, the National Federation of Journalists observes that, “The continuity of press freedom violations in Brazil is clearly associated with the rise of Jair Bolsonaro to the Presidency of the Republic”.
After leaving FUNAI, Bruno Pereira went to work with Univaja, which does not have government “support”. As Andrew Downie writes, “Pereira’s gift for fundraising and bridge-building, coupled with Bolsonaro’s disregard for Funai, means Univaja now has better boats and better equipment than the government body.” Indeed, “Members of Univaja were among the first people on the river to help search for Phillips and Pereira after they went missing on 5 June. Funai had no boats in working order and had to hire launches to assist in the efforts … Univaja is empowering the Indigenous people to look after themselves.” Univaja is about rights. Meanwhile, the government gets on with its projects. The Special Secretary of Culture, former soap opera actor Mário Frias is busy peddling a mad theory of some fabulous underground city called Ratanabá, supposedly lost for more than 450 million years, as a way to distract from real-world murders, right when Elon Musk jets in to discuss rainforest plans (selling the Amazon sky for Musk’s “monitoring” satellites?) with Bolsonaro, “so that the Amazon is known by everyone in Brazil and in the world, to show the exuberance of this region, how we are preserving it, and how much harm those who spread lies about this region are doing to us”.
When American-born and naturalised-Brazilian nun Dorothy Stang, defender of the rainforest and Indigenous people, was murdered by ranchers’ hitmen in 2005, then-president Lula set up an office in Pará to investigate the crime. This time, the criminals felt threatened. With Bolsonaro’s “anything can happen” they feel empowered. Dorothy Stang’s death was a reaction to Lula’s measures to protect the environment. The murders of Bruno and Dom underpin a lawless regime. However, they’ve also raised very important matters that are increasingly being voiced by Indigenous peoples, who are challenging the notion of protection, which has always meant telling them what they can and can’t do, where and how they can and can’t live. They’re demanding full human rights. This isn’t widely reported, but Lula met with Indigenous leaders in August 2021, when more than 5,000 people set up the Struggle for Life camp in Brasília to protest the pseudo-legal “marco temporal” (the Bill of Death) limiting recognised demarcation of Indigenous lands to those that were in their possession or under proven dispute as of 5 October 1988 when the current Constitution came into force. He promised them that, if he wins this year’s elections, he’ll create a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, to be run by their own representatives, who will manage matters related to their lands and the biomes they include. If this happens, it will be a serious, responsible step forward in fostering human rights and improving the health of the planet. And that’s what Bruno and Dom were working for.