In June, an advocate for the Amazon’s Indigenous groups and a journalist accompanying him were murdered in Brazil’s Javari Valley, a dense stretch of forest — larger than Austria — that has the very best concentration of uncontacted Indigenous groups on the earth. The advocate, Bruno Pereira, was working to stop the relentless incursions by miners, loggers, narco-traffickers, fishers, and hunters who’re illegally encroaching on Indigenous land under the regime of Brazil’s nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, which has refused to implement environmental and territorial laws.
Beto Marubo, a distinguished Indigenous leader in Brazil and coordinating member of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), was a friend of Pereira’s and has been working alongside him to guard the Javari Valley, whose location on the border with Peru and near Colombia has made it especially liable to illegal incursions. Eight men suspected of belonging to an illegal fishing gang within the Amazon have been arrested in reference to the murders of Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, who was researching a book called Tips on how to Save the Amazon.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Marubo describes the crucial work that Pereira was doing to enable Indigenous groups to observe and protect their territories; talks about how, under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s agency to guard Indigenous lands and folks, referred to as FUNAI, has virtually stopped defending Indigenous territories; and explains how Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous policies have led to a rise in murders of Indigenous leaders and a pointy rise in environmental destruction.
“All of [these] aspects were brought on by the absence of the Brazilian government within the Amazon,” says Marubo. “Organized crime is taking on this void left by the state.”
Yale Environment 360: Tell me in regards to the land monitoring you were doing with Bruno Pereira’s help.
Beto Marubo: Before Bruno began working with UNIVAJA, he already worked on the difficulty of territorial monitoring. It was the work he most dedicated himself to when he worked for FUNAI. We met one another due to that work. In 2019, when he asked to take a leave from FUNAI, I invited him to come back work with us. He accepted the invitation. I used to be the one who worked on the organizational part, finding partners, individuals who could help us with territorial protection, and he worked in the sphere.
Our initiative really began due to absence of the [federal government] within the Javari Valley, which isn’t news within the Amazon generally, and the deliberate destruction of FUNAI at a regional and national level, the weakening of field work. We had no guarantee that any federal agency in Brazil would protect uncontacted Indigenous groups, which we were especially frightened about within the context of the Bolsonaro government. So we needed to take the initiative through the Indigenous organization UNIVAJA to fill that role.
We give attention to the Javari Valley. Since FUNAI wasn’t doing its job, and the federal police, military, and other state-run institutions weren’t either, we decided to quantify the knowledge that was on the market. Because up until that time all we ever heard was that there was a rise in invasions of Indigenous lands, that uncontacted Indigenous groups were at risk. The discourse was very vague. We desired to quantify the knowledge in a technical way, to offer details about what was happening.
“With the arrival of the Bolsonaro government, state motion became null.”
That’s when the UNIVAJA surveillance team was created. It was a team of Indigenous people from the villages, but they didn’t have basic technical knowledge of computers, cartography, photography, and video, much less about operating complex equipment that required, on the very least, that knowledge. So we needed to teach them. Bruno was fundamental on this. Bruno began to train them in the best way to use cartographic information, and the best way to use apps and equipment, like cellphones, to observe their territory in an easy way that may be of great technical use. He taught them the best way to capture images with drones — the small ones which can be really accessible — and there have been several advantages. However the primary reason we had to do that was the weakening of FUNAI and the rise of invasions on our territory, especially due to risks to the uncontacted Indigenous peoples living within the Javari Valley.
e360: What were you and other Indigenous groups within the region doing to observe and protect your land before Bruno helped?
Marubo: We were already monitoring our territory, but in a more institutionalized way in partnership with the federal government. When there weren’t any federal civil servants, any FUNAI staff available, FUNAI was capable of hire, through more flexible means, Indigenous people themselves to work from their surveillance bases. So we had Indigenous people already working, but officially, jointly, monitoring the Javari Valley. But this was with FUNAI on the forefront, FUNAI in charge.
Now the difference [under Bolsonaro] is that we’ve needed to act alone. We’re way more vulnerable now. Now we have no support.
e360: This latest monitoring project with Bruno and UNIVAJA began in 2019, when Bolsonaro took office. What was the situation like before?
Marubo: The Indigenous issue in Brazil has never been a priority for any government. That’s value highlighting. FUNAI, for instance, has never been a priority for any government. Nevertheless, the Brazilian government did, before, take motion — with limitations, however the state did take motion — by the use of FUNAI and security agencies, just like the federal police, the military, and others. For higher or worse, they did something. There was a plan.
e360: How did it change when Bolsonaro became president?
Marubo: With the arrival of the present Bolsonaro government, state motion became null. All of it became just rhetoric. He says things like, “Now we have autonomy over the Amazon … We deal with our Amazon.” But none of that is true.
There’s that issue, after which there’s one other vital and much more harmful factor, which is that he directly supports the actions of those invading Indigenous lands. He even supports initiatives within the National Congress to create laws against the protection of the environment, against Indigenous rights, against individuals who rely on the Amazon rainforest. There are potential laws which can be intended to relativize the correct to land, like Bill 490, currently within the National Congress and still under evaluation, and Bill 191, which allows mining on Indigenous lands. Other legal mechanisms — and institutes — [protecting the environment] were weakened or just extinguished. This has also contributed to the rise in invasions of Indigenous land. In other words, there’s an indirect, implicit, tacit authorization coming from the federal government.
The results of that is what we’re seeing today through the rise in indicators of environmental destruction in Brazil, especially within the Amazon, and the rise in crimes against the lives of those that need to protect the environment.
“Despite the national and international repercussions of the deaths of my friends, not much has modified.”
Pereira and Dom Phillips were two more victims of this process. There have been several others, too. There’s Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia, who died [in 2020] in the identical context. There’s Paulino Guajajara in Maranhão [killed in 2019], who was doing the identical work as UNIVAJA. There are several other leaders who’ve turn out to be victims.
Within the Javari Valley, we even have [Indigenous expert and FUNAI employee] Maxciel [Pereira dos Santos], who was killed in 2019, apparently for a similar reason — that he was protecting Indigenous land within the Javari Valley.
All of this, all the aspects I discussed, they were brought on by the absence of the Brazilian government within the Amazon. Organized crime is taking on this void left by the state.
e360: There was hope that there is perhaps a small silver lining when Pereira and Phillips disappeared, that authorities might step up and begin protecting the Javari Valley due to what happened. What’s the situation like within the region now?
Marubo: It went back to the way in which it was before. The identical things that used to occur are still happening now. Despite the national and international repercussions of the deaths of my friends, not much has modified. The state remains to be absent.
Paradoxically, when the search [for the bodies of Pereira and Phillips] was happening, all the safety forces got here out to assist: military police, civil police, federal police, the military, the navy, the air force, a number of people. But after they found their bodies, things went back to the identical way they were before. Invasions of Indigenous land haven’t modified. They’re invading the identical way they were before. There’s an entire lack of security in an area that could be very tense, where transnational crimes are rampant because we’re in a border region that is understood on the earth for its violence. Nothing has modified in any respect.
e360: What do you wish from the federal government that you simply don’t have now?
Marubo: At this point it’s not what we wish; it’s what we want.
Brazil goes to have a really big responsibility in the approaching years when it comes to environmental issues. And if it doesn’t adapt to the principles of common sense and what it’s been promising the international community — the achievement of environmental protection goals, the achievement of goals on climate change — it would either be disregarded or suffer an economic boycott.
Our expectation is that the federal government — the subsequent government, not this crazy government now we have now — makes this commitment and understands that it would should use all the strength of the Brazilian state to reverse the present setbacks brought on by the Bolsonaro government.
FUNAI has to play a fundamental role on this plan. Because FUNAI is the body that has the duty of protecting Indigenous lands and, in some cases, the responsibility of the physical protection of Indigenous people, especially uncontacted Indigenous people. It must have the strength to do its job, as do other institutions, like IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], the federal police, the military. They should be systematic and robust and set a transparent example. In the event that they don’t, it would take greater than the subsequent 10 years to get out of this quagmire the federal government has put us in.