In The Amazon, Retracing The Last Steps Of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira
The murder of Brazil indigenist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips is shocking. Still, once looking more closely, it is not necessarily a surprise considering both the violence in Brazil and the situation in the rain forest under President Jair Bolsonaro.
Worldcrunch has turned to independent Brazilian media Agência Pública for special coverage of the murder of Brazil indigenist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips in Brazil’s Amazon. And their deaths is not a coincidence, nor fully unexpected. Thousands of environmentalist and land-defenders have been killed worldwide over the past two decades, with Brazil being one of the most murderous countries.
In Brazil, the situation in the Amazon worsened under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed to develop the Amazon as well as cut funds to protection and indigenous government bodies. During a 2019 press conference, Bolsonaro responded to a question posed by Phillips by saying: “The Amazon is ours, not yours.”
“Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira have been killed in an undeclared global war against nature and the people who defend it,” wrote The Guardian’s global environment editor Jonathan Watts, also a friend of Phillips. In this reportage, Agência Pública retraced the last days of Pereira and Phillips, talking to the people in the nearby communities.
A simple route
Agência Pública retraced the last known movements of Brazilian indigenist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips before they disappeared on Sunday, June 5. The journey took place along the Itaquaí river from the region's main urban center, the small town of Atalaia do Norte, in Amazonas state, north-west Brazil, on the border with Peru, with some 25,000 residents.
A trip down the Itaquaí in this wide and clear stretch does not remotely resemble an "adventure," contrary to what President Jair Bolsonaro claimed in order to disqualify the two. It is a simple route, taken by dozens of Amazonians every day, including the elderly and children.
There is no imminent danger, unless the traveler is an environmental and indigenous protection agent. Pereira, who for more than nine years had been fighting for the preservation of the Javari Valley, was a talked-about target throughout the region.
The winding path of the Itaquaí river leads to the "mouth" of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land, an ecological sanctuary of 8.5 million hectares the size of Portugal, demarcated in the 1990s and increasingly threatened by trespassers, religious missionaries, hunters, and illegal fishermen. Six different indigenous ethnic groups and at least 16 isolated tribes live there, in what is considered the largest concentration of isolated indigenous peoples in the world.
Bruno and Dom left the port of Atalaia on June 2 on a small boat with a 40 HP engine. The journalist, who for years covered Brazil for several foreign media, was doing research to write a book about preservation and sustainable development in the Amazon.
The duo's first stop was a place known as "Ladário." There are only two wooden houses on the right bank of the Itaquaí river. Bruno had arranged to buy 20 oars that would be distributed to the indigenous inspection teams that he was helping to organize with the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja), an entity representing indigenous people in the Javari Valley.
"He stopped here and [said] 'my friend, where are my oars?' I said, 'Boy, I'm going to do it now,'" replied carpenter Floriano Francisco da Costa, aka Gato. He spoke to Agência Pública as he continued smoothing down a large piece of wood to build a boat. The production of the oars stopped.
Bruno and Dom entered the wooden house to have a coffee with the owners. “They were here for more than half an hour, he and the reporter were talking, and then he said 'boy, let's go’. He shook my hand. Later [on Sunday], I didn't see him 'going down' [returning to Atalaia], I was in bed, he passed by here about six o'clock in the morning, I only heard the engine", said Gato.
Leaving the port of Atalaia do Norte in a small motor boat takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes to reach the base of the Ethno-Environmental Protection Front of the National Indian Foundation (Funai), the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples. The base consists of a set of seven wooden buildings installed at the confluence of the Itaquaí and Ituí rivers. From the community of Ladário to the Funai base is about 15 minutes.
At the Funai base
The Vale do Javari Indigenous Land, in the jurisdiction of four municipalities in the Amazon, including the Atalaia do Norte, where Bruno and Dom were travelling.
The base is the maximum point beyond which strangers cannot move on without a Funai authorization. On the trip on which they disappeared, Bruno and Dom did not cross this limit, according to various witnesses, despite the allegations of Federal Police delegate Marcelo Xavier, that the two would have entered the indigenous land without authorization from the agency he presides over.
About 500 meters before the Funai base, a sign warns of the limit of the territory that should be under permanent protection by the federal government. It is against the base that hunters have fired shots at least five times in the last four years, an unmistakable sign of the upsurge in harassment of the coveted riches of the indigenous territory, such as pirarucu and pacu fish, as well as turtles.
In the bend of the river before the border of the indigenous land, there is a small wooden house with two rooms and a veranda built by a river dweller known in the region as Raimundinho, who has another house in Atalaia. Next to the little house, Univaja usually docks a raft with the resident's permission. It is the main entrance to the so-called Jaburu Lake, where a fish management project is running. Raimundinho works as an "inspector" of the project.
The transfer of the so-called "Univaja base" from inside to outside the indigenous land was a decision taken by the indigenous people to try to stop the rapid advancement on their territory. Bruno and Dom spent their last night before their disappearance here, at Raimundinho's house.
Raimundinho's caretaker is João Guerrero, 77, from Peru. He told Agência Pública that Bruno and Dom slept in hammocks for two nights before returning to Atalaia on Sunday morning. On Saturday morning, on the condition of anonymity, indigenous people told the press, and repeated to the police, that they had witnessed a group of fishermen, including Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, aka Pelado, a fisherman who has been arrested in connection to the cases, threatening an indigenous inspection team that was investigating a complaint of illegal fishing in a lake in the region.
Reporting to Atalaia
Pelado allegedly went as far as the sign delimiting the indigenous land and showed firearms to the indigenous people — his family claims that he showed them a paddle. According to an indigenous person who works with Univaja, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the moment the fishermen displayed the weapons was photographed with two cell phones by the indigenous members of the surveillance team.
These simple devices, distributed by the Univaja project precisely to catch irregularities within the territory, were later handed to Bruno so that he could make a formal report in Atalaia. The devices have also disappeared. The indigenous people also went to the Funai base in Ituí and reported the threat. When Pelado passed in front of Raimundinho's house, his boat was also photographed by Bruno and Dom.
At Raimundinho's house, where the pair spent the night in hammocks on the veranda, Guerrero, the caretaker, said that he was not aware of the threats. That night they had fish and noodles for dinner. At dawn the next day, Bruno and Dom left for Atalaia. "They left here early, I heard him talking to Raimundinho, 'I'm leaving, talk to the community. Sunday morning, five o'clock," said the caretaker.
Bruno and Dom resumed their trip back to Atalaia, expecting to arrive in the city around 8 or 9 in the morning. The indigenist had scheduled appointments throughout the week. The next known stop for the pair was the community of São Rafael, where some 20 riverside families live.
At this point, there are conflicting versions of the story. A government official and friend of Bruno told Agência Pública, on the condition that his name not be published, that a few days earlier a councilman from Atalaia had told Bruno that the community of São Rafael would like to have a meeting with him about problems they were facing with a fish management project in the region. Bruno knew about the problems, and wanted to offer help and, at the same time, establish some sort of enforcement support against the invasion of indigenous land. Before the trip began, however, information came that the meeting could no longer take place for reasons that are still unclear.
Bruno's friend said that the indigenist was frustrated with the news, as he also wanted to talk to the fishermen in order to try to reduce the increasingly serious tensions between the fishermen who insist on invading the indigenous land and the enforcement agents and the indigenous people who protect the territory. The cancellation of the meeting, however, did not change the trip plan.
In São Rafael, Bruno was supposed to talk with community leader Manoel Sabino da Costa, aka Churrasco, 60. His daughter Ana Carla Ramos da Costa, Moça, 31, who has lived in the community for 18 years, told a different story about the missed meeting. She said that her father received a message from his brother — the same Raimundinho who lends his house as a support point for Univaja — about a meeting with Bruno on Saturday, June 4.
Moça said that her father waited for Bruno, meaning that he did not take the initiative to cancel the meeting. Since the indigenist didn't show up, said Moça, her father dedicated his Sunday to fishing and collecting açaí in a lake near the community.
On Sunday morning, around 6am, according to Univaja, Bruno arrived at the São Rafael community. At Churrasco’s house he only found his wife, Nira, Moça's mother.
"He went upstairs, asked where Dad was. He asked if Mom could write. She said no. He asked Mom for a notebook, wrote his [phone] number. He wanted to talk to Dad when he 'came down' to Atalaia. We don't know [the reason], he sent word that he wanted to have a meeting with the community," said Moça. According to her, her father has lived in the same location for 49 years.
"We weren't angry with Bruno"
A plane carrying the remains that may belong to British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenist Bruno Pereira landed at Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport on Thursday. The remains will undergo forensic examination at the headquarters of the Federal Police National Institute of Criminalistics.
Another resident of the community, Sebastiana Capistrana Marques, aka Pequena, confirmed that Bruno "was at Nira's. He had coffee with her [...]. He passed by here, he went to Nira, behind Churrasco, he was at the lake".
Churrasco's daughter said that "we weren't angry with Bruno here in the community, that kind of thing, no, we weren't."
"We were thinking 'who has the courage to do this to this guy? It is such a strange thing, because we saw him 'go down' and then he disappeared. We imagine so many things, and even we, who are not close to him, are shaken," she said.
Churrasco's daughter said that she met Bruno only once, at the beginning of this year, when he went by the community and spoke with Churrasco. "He came talking to Dad and said good morning to us there. He told Dad that in April or May he was going to have another meeting, he wanted to talk to everyone."
Moça said she knows the fisherman Amarildo, aka Pelado, who has been in jail since last week, because he used to show up on the days of celebration at the community. Pelado and his family members live in the community of São Gabriel, about 10 minutes downriver.
Another resident of São Rafael, Ednei Pereira Campos, 25, said that he doesn't know what the meeting with Bruno was supposed to be about, but that it was about "a help" for the community.
"We knew that he was interested in helping us here. He certainly stopped here to set up a meeting with the community. But he wanted to talk to the president, Churrasco. Precisely because of the invaders, he wanted to give us some support here so that we could help him there, so that the illegal fishermen wouldn't go through, something like that.”
He said that "here in our community there was nothing against him, no. I can’t talk about the other communities, we don't know.”
A third resident, Tatiana Capistrana Marques, sister of Pequena’s, said, "Here nobody had anything against him. He had never done anything bad to us. Thank God, really. He got tired of passing, he never stopped at our place..."
Agência Pública stopped in the community of São Gabriel to hear from the family members of Pelado. One of the brothers, Eliclei Costa de Oliveira, 31, known as Cirinha, said that his lawyers had told the family "not to talk to anyone." But he ended up defending his brother. During our conversation, which took place on June 12, only Pelado was in jail. On June 14, another brother, Oseney, known as Dos Santos, would be arrested too.
Cirinha denied that Pelado left the house on the day of Bruno and Dom's return. “Pelado didn't leave. He was here. He left on Monday when the police took him. He spent Sunday at home. On Sunday nobody works," said Cirinha.
Police investigations continue
The last known point of Bruno and Dom's trip is known because of the testimony of a witness who would have seen Pelado's boat pass just after the community of São Gabriel. Six days after their disappearance, the indigenous search team found the pair's belongings, such as a backpack and a health insurance card in Bruno's name, some ten minutes after São Gabriel.
On June 15, 10 days after the disappearance, the Federal Police announced in a press conference that they found Bruno and Dom's remains in the forest, about an hour by boat from where the belongings were collected. The boat would have been sunk by their killers. Police investigations continue.
The indigenous people who actively participated in all the searches and were indispensable in locating the bodies were not even mentioned in the press conference that brought together the Federal Police, the Civil Police, the Military Police, the Army and the Navy.
Univaja published a note reminding that the case is not over: "We express our concern with the continuity of the investigations. Pelado and Dos Santos are part of a larger group, we know. We express our concern about our lives, the lives of the people threatened (for it was not only Bruno Pereira), members of the indigenous movement. When the armed forces and the press move from Atalaia do Norte, what will happen to us? Will we continue living under threat?"