British reporter Dom Phillips and local activist Bruno Pereira vanished following death threats
What are believed to be human remains have been found in the Brazilian rainforest where a local activist and British journalist went missing last week.
The Javari Valley, the vast, primeval woodland is reputed to be home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else on Earth — and a growing number of criminals coveting their natural resources.
It requires an expert guide. Possibly none was more knowledgeable than Bruno Pereira (41), who worked with local tribal indigenous group OPI, and last week disappeared there with journalist Dom Phillips, after alleged threats from a local gangster.
A former head of the local branch of Funai, Brazil’s national indigenous agency, he was by all accounts cool under pressure and never travelled in the Amazon alone or without a firearm.
Fiona Watson, of the campaign group Survival International, has known Mr Pereira for more than a decade and first visited the Javari in the 1990s. She said: “He was always getting death threats. A lot of indigenous leaders and their allies in Brazil do. It’s the sad reality.
“Many of the threats are intimidatory, just to prevent you doing your job. But some of them, of course, are all too real.
“Bruno and Dom would have thought things through carefully and were taking a calculated risk when they went in.”
Mr Pereira’s job was to defend the rights of highly vulnerable tribespeople from ruthless loggers, poachers, fishermen and drug traffickers ferrying cocaine from neighbouring Peru to markets from Rio de Janeiro to London.
Those criminals have increasingly encroached into the Javari. In doing so, they have risked the lives and cultures of an estimated 2,000 people from 14 different uncontacted tribes.
After criticism for their initially slow reaction, police arrested three men and are continuing to hold one in custody.
Hopes that the pair are alive were fading this weekend, after what is believed to be human remains were found in a recently dug grave.
Among those detained is Amarildo da Costa, a local fisherman with a reputation for violence and links to the drugs trade. He was found with a shotgun, 7.62mm rifle cartridges and a small amount of what is thought to be cocaine.
The cartridges are military issue only in Brazil, prompting suspicions that Mr Da Costa may have been involved with organised crime. Traces of blood were found in his boat, though it is possible they came from fish or animals. The traces have been sent to a laboratory.
Witnesses have said Mr Da Costa had previously shot at tribespeople and separately suggested he wanted to use Mr Pereira for target practice. He was allegedly seen following the pair on the river on the day they vanished, with a rifle.
Linguistically and culturally diverse, the peoples of the Javari include the Marubo, who believe that living humans have been pieced together from the remains of deceased ancestors, the Korubo, known for their war clubs, and Tsohom-dyapa or “Toucan people”.
They have no immunity to common western diseases such as measles or flu, which have been known to wipe out entire tribes. These small groups are also no technological match for the guns used by those seeking to displace them.
Like most Amazonian countries, Brazil is formally committed to protecting its indigenous peoples. Integration was once popular — with children sometimes taken from their parents — but a guiding principle now is that only tribes can initiate contact with outsiders.
Yet Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist Brazilian president dubbed the “Trump of the tropics”, has according to critics undermined those protections through policies and racist rhetoric. He once suggested tribespeople could only “become human beings” by adopting western culture.
Mr Bolsonaro’s critics have said he has gutted Funai, including forcing Mr Pereira out of his job in 2019, while seeking to further open the Amazon to mining, ranching and other economic activities.
The resultant deforestation has driven up Brazil’s carbon emissions.
Mr Bolsonaro offered his sympathies to the families of Mr Pereira and Mr Phillips, but also appeared to blame the men for going on an “unrecommended adventure” in the jungle.
Critics pointed out that Mr Pereira was defending human rights, while Mr Phillips was a journalist covering an issue of public interest.
Rafael Nonato, a linguist who studies Amazonian languages at the Federal University of Pernambuco, said: “The situation is getting worse and worse.
“The very institutions that are supposed to be defending indigenous peoples are now fighting them.
“Bolsonaro has created this climate of impunity. People feel emboldened, that they will not be punished.”
As a result, the Amazon’s indigenous cultures are under more pressure than ever, with the clock ticking to the disappearance of most. Western scientists now recognise native knowledge of the rainforest and its biodiversity, including medicinal plants. Amazonian languages, so alien to most outsiders, could help resolve outstanding mysteries of neuroscience and evolution."
Ms Watson said: “Bruno was incredibly passionate about indigenous peoples, with a lot of stamina, which you need to have to travel there. I fear the worst.”
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