Sent to a desk job after President Jair Bolsonaro was elected, indigenous protector Bruno Pereira took time off and returned to the field – but is now missing along with British journalist Dom Phillips

Until far-right Jair Bolsonaro took office as president of Brazil in 2019, missing Amazon expert Bruno Pereira coordinated efforts to protect isolated indigenous peoples at Funai, the government agency tasked with protecting indigenous peoples.

But while Bolsonaro kept his campaign promise to carry a “scythe” to Funai for his role in formally recognizing more indigenous territories, Pereira was removed from fieldwork and replaced by an evangelical missionary.

Pereira – like other ostracized colleagues at Funai – has returned to the work he was passionate about, taking time off from his government job to return to the frontline of indigenous protection: the remote Amazonian valley of Javari.

The 41-year-old had previously worked as a Funai coordinator in the Javari Valley reserve, the second largest indigenous territory in the country.

On June 5, Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, who were looking for a book there under Pereira’s direction, disappeared with their boat, a day after Pereira was threatened by an illegal fisherman in the area.

A threatening letter accused Pereira of having “ordered the Indians to stop our engines and take our fish”. A fisherman is being investigated in connection with the couple’s disappearance, police said.

A TV station quoted Phillips’ wife on Monday as saying the bodies of the two men had been found, but Brazil’s federal police denied this, saying only that items belonging to the men were found in a river near the river. where they had disappeared.

Both were veterans of the trip to the remote valley near the Peruvian and Colombian borders, home to the largest concentration of uncontacted and uncontacted indigenous tribes in Brazil.

But under what analysts say is a weakened Funai, indigenous areas in the Amazon’s ‘Wild West’ have faced worsening incursions by land grabbers, gold diggers, hunters and illegal fishers. and drug gangs.

‘ANTI-NATIVE’ AGENCY

On Monday, Indigenistas Associados (INA), an institution that represents Funai agents, released a dossier in partnership with the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies, a nonprofit organization focused on public policy, accusing the government Bolsonaro to persecute public employees such as Pereira and turn Funai into an “anti-indigenous” agency.

The document says Bolsonaro followed through on his threats to weaken Funai and not recognize “one more centimeter” of indigenous land with formal protection.

The changes have put indigenous communities – and those working to protect them, like Pereira – at risk, said Fernando de Luiz Brito Vianna, INA president and one of the dossier’s authors.

In response to the charges in the filing, a Funai spokesperson said the agency “acts in strict accordance with the principles of legality, impartiality and morality” and that its work is in the public interest.

Accusations of persecuting agents within Funai were unfounded, the spokesperson added, noting that agency heads had the right to hire and fire directors and other key members of the organization. personal as they wished.

According to the filing, career Funai officers have been sidelined since Bolsonaro’s election and replaced by people with far less experience on indigenous issues.

Of the 39 coordinators currently working in the agency, 17 are military, five are police and six have no prior experience in public administration, he said.

Pereira was replaced as coordinator in 2019 shortly after the dismantling of illegal mining operations in the Yanomami indigenous reservation, as part of its efforts to protect isolated indigenous groups in Funai.

After taking leave from Funai, he continued to support the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja), teaching activists how to operate drones and map and document crimes to report to authorities.

FRUSTRATIONS

Two former colleagues of Pereira at Funai, who did not receive leave from the revamped agency and resigned to continue their indigenous work with nonprofits, said they understood the frustrations that brought Pereira back to Amazonia.

“I left Funai a year ago after saying the indigenous policy was being dismantled,” one said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The former employee quit after fears “of being called upon to participate in disciplinary proceedings against a colleague” who were furthering the agency’s indigenous protection work, they said. Another said he had participated in such a process.

Four indigenous protection officers still working with Funai said staff who remained at the agency were under constant pressure to change the way they do their jobs.

“We are viewed as naysayers… we are ostracized or treated as untrustworthy,” said a Funai agent, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the filing, officers were told not to use terminology deemed “subversive” by the Bolsonaro administration, which may include terms such as “indigenous movements” or “indigenous assemblies.”

A source at Funai said staff had been told to avoid using the term “people” – considered leftist – for indigenous groups.

In a similar vein, the red logo of the Indian Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro – its color inspired by a symbol of the indigenous Kadiweu people – has been replaced with blue, to avoid a “leftist” color.

Other Funai field workers have been transferred to administrative duties in Brasilia or “left in the fridge” after carrying out work contrary to the government’s new vision, said another Funai worker, who also demanded anonymity.

Last year, a report by Funai officials that recommended maintaining protections for indigenous groups in an area where signs of isolated populations had been spotted was internally classified as ‘ideological’ and ‘unsuitable’, according to the folder.

FARMERS AND LAND GRABBERS

On several occasions, Funai President Marcelo Xavier not only questioned the studies prepared by agents, but reported them as misconduct to Funai’s internal affairs department and the federal police, according to the file. .

Xavier did not respond to requests for comment.

A Federal Police agent, Xavier comes from a family of farmers. In 2014 he was removed from police operations to drive farmers off indigenous land after bugged farmers said he was on their side, the BBC reported.

He is backed by Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby in Congress, which frequently opposes recognition of indigenous territories, pointing to Funai’s transformation under Bolsonaro, analysts say.

“Now you have people in Funai who three years ago were preparing documents favorable to farmers and land grabbers,” said Ricardo Verdum, a member of the Indigenous Issues Commission of the Brazilian Anthropology Association.

Under the current administration, Funai has pressured the indigenous Waimiri Atroari people to reinstate talks on building a long-distance power line in their territory, according to the filing.

Xavier also decided to limit the agency’s protection efforts only to areas officially recognized as Indigenous territories – a position later partially reversed in February 2022 by the Supreme Court.

According to data from the Instituto Socioambiental, a non-profit organization focused on defending the environment and traditional communities in Brazil, 123 territories, mostly Amazonian, covering 10.57 million hectares, make up the subject to an often decades-long process to gain formal recognition as indigenous lands.

118 other territories are in the first phase of study by Funai, which is responsible for identifying the total area they cover.

Funai’s decision under Bolsonaro to protect only officially recognized indigenous lands has effectively helped open up traditional indigenous areas that did not yet have formal protection from invasion by non-indigenous settlers, Vianna said. ‘INA.

Funai saw its mission reversed under Bolsonaro, said Leila Saraiva, political adviser to the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies and co-coordinator of the file.

“The government is doing more than letting Funai sit…it is stealing from it to advance anti-indigenous interests,” she said.

Vianna said he believes change at Funai will only come with a change of government, as Brazil heads towards elections in October.

A poll published at the end of May by the Datafolha agency showed that former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led Bolsonaro in the race, with 43% of the vote against 26% for Bolsonaro.

André Cabette Fabio is a journalist based in Brazil for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This article was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit them at https://news.trust.org/