Bruno Pereira, expert on Brazil’s Indigenous communities, dead at 41

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SAO PAULO, Brazil — Bruno Araujo Pereira, a Brazilian expert on isolated Indigenous communities who led grueling expeditions into remote corners of the Amazon rainforest, was killed in an attack in the Javari Valley of western Brazil, authorities confirmed on Saturday. He was 41.

Authorities announced that human remains retrieved from an isolated forest location belonged to Mr. Pereira and Dom Phillips, a Brazil-based contributor to the Guardian and former contract writer for The Washington Post. Police said that a fisherman had admitted to killing two of the men while they were traveling on an uninhabited section of the river to Atalaia Do Norte. Investigators were led by the fishermen to where the bodies were found.

Police said Mr. Pereira and Phillips were shot to death. Three men were taken into custody.

Mr. Pereira, a longtime official with Brazil’s Indigenous protection agency, had been accompanying his friend and frequent travel companion on a reporting trip for a book the British journalist was writing about conservation in the Amazon. They were on the Itaquai River, interviewing Indigenous surveillance teams that had been mapping crime and protecting their land against invaders.

It was the kind of work to which Mr. Pereira had devoted his career, collaborating closely with Indigenous communities and studying the whereabouts of uncontacted peoples threatened by the encroachment of modernity. According to colleagues and friends, Pereira was a passionate advocate for the Amazon. He gained trust from Indigenous partners through his involvement in the communities of their peoples and investments. Pereira could speak several Javari Valley languages. You could hear him singing Indigenous songs. His love of stories was shared with friends and coworkers. He also had a funny, universal sense humor which allowed him to communicate well with people who are sometimes skeptical about outsiders.

“When everyone was desperate, Bruno was the guy who calmed the team down,” said Lucas Albertoni, a physician who accompanied Mr. Pereira on several expeditions. He makes everyone laugh, even in stressful situations. And the jokes are so global that both White and Indigenous people laugh.”

Since his disappearance June 5, friends have joked that if he had been found, he would have cursed them out: “You took too long!”

Mr. Pereira frequently went on weeks-long expeditions by boat and foot into the thick jungle of the Javari Valley, considered home to the world’s largest concentration of the uncontacted: Indigenous communities that have avoided and are supposed to be protected from the outside world. It’s a lawless territory larger than South Carolina where the absence of the state has allowed widespread illegal mining, fishing and logging to move in.

Mr. Pereira received numerous death threats, including from illegal fishermen just before his last trip. Pereira was a skilled researcher, guide and strategist who carefully planned routes with local Indigenous communities.

“He was a person who studied and researched deeply,” said Leonardo Lenin, a friend who works with the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples. Mr. Pereira believed in the importance of embedding in the region, Lenin said, saying that “our feet have to be on the ground, we have to be smelling the fire together, feeling it in ourselves.”

Lenin said that made it especially “painful and revolting” to hear President Jair Bolsonaro accuse Mr. Pereira of having set out on an “adventure.”

“Two people in a boat, in a completely wild region like this, is an adventure that isn’t recommendable for one to do,” said Bolsonaro, a right-wing advocate for developing the Amazon and a critic of environmental restrictions.

Mr. Beatriz Matos Pereira, Pereira’s spouse, said that she felt hurt by his words to Brazil’s TV Globo.

“These are statements that contradict the extreme dedication, seriousness and commitment that Bruno has with his work,” she said. “If his workplace, our workplace and that of many others, became a dangerous place, where we need an armed escort to be able to work, there is something very wrong there. The problem isn’t with us. It is with the one who allowed this to happen.”

Mr. Pereira met Matos, an anthropologist, in the Javari Valley in 2015, according to a family friend. Mr. Pereira was a father of three, a 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, and two children, ages 2 and 3, with Matos.

Mr. Pereira was born near the Atlantic coast in Pernambuco. He first went to the Amazon in the early 2000s as an employee of a company doing reforestation work around a hydroelectric plant near Manaus. He joined the government Indigenous agency, FUNAI, in 2010 and rose to general coordinator for isolated communities, working in Brasilia.

Under his leadership, the agency in 2019 carried out the largest Indigenous contact expedition since the 1980s. That same year, he coordinated an operation that dismantled an illegal mining scheme in the Javari Valley.

Then Bolsonaro came to power — and soon slashed funding for the agency. Mr. Pereira was removed from his position.

Mr. Pereira accompanied Phillips on a 17-day journey in the Javari Valley for a 2018 article in the Guardian. Phillips began the story with a description of a morning with Mr. Pereira: “Wearing just shorts and flip-flop as he squats in the mud by a fire, Bruno Pereira, an official at Brazil’s government indigenous agency, cracks open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats its brains for breakfast as he discusses policy.”

Mr. Pereira told Phillips about the challenges of working with a government that was depriving the agency of critical resources. He downplayed difficulties that officials like himself face.

“It’s not about us,” Mr. Pereira was quoted as saying. “The indigenous are the heroes.”

Until his death, he was working as an adviser for the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union, or Univaja. His training had involved teaching Indigenous people not fluent in Portuguese how to use satellite technology for mapping invasions on their territory. Phillips was not in his official capacity when he went with him on the final trip.

Throughout his career, Mr. Pereira believed in the importance of avoiding contact with isolated Indigenous people. But as Phillips wrote, his monitoring expeditions provided “invaluable intelligence” to help protect those communities.

Mr. Pereira only made contact with isolated communities to avoid conflict with others. In 2019, he helped broker an agreement between the Korubo and the Matis in the Javari Valley so that one would not encroach into the other’s territory, said Artur Nobre Mendes, a former president of FUNAI. Nobre stated that Pereira brought with him some Korubo contacts when he approached the Korubo.

“There are several dilemmas that we went through to make this decision, and many others even to get these images of them for the whole world to see,” Mr. Pereira told TV Globo about the expedition in 2019. People also have the freedom to decide how they live, as well as their own land. We will fight to protect that right. Everyone needs to look beyond their bubbles and see that other Brazils exist. “

Albertoni, the doctor who accompanied Mr. Pereira on expeditions, said Mr. Pereira made a point of learning ancestral songs important to the culture of the communities where he spent time. As a Kanamari member, Pereira was able to sing with them while drinking ayahuasca. This traditional and sacred brew is considered sacred by many Indigenous cultures.

“You could see how much of an enlightened soul Bruno was,” Albertoni said. “There in the dark, you couldn’t tell the difference between him and the Indigenous people singing in their language, because his relationship with them and their culture was so intense.”

He had begun teaching his young children the Kanamari songs, Albertoni said.

“What surprised me was his sensibility and interest in learning more,” said Beto Marubo, a coordinator with Univaja and member of the Marubo community. According to him, Mr. Pereira was a cheerful and playful individual who could connect with Indigenous people that were usually reserved. “The Indigenous came to respect him as a connoisseur of the jungle … of the dangers and of the knowledge that the jungle offers.”

One member of the Kanamari community who was with Mr. Pereira in the days and hours before his disappearance described his death as a “great loss for all the people of the Javari.”

“We lost a great man, who fought for the Indigenous lands and the Amazon forest,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “He always motivated us, in the most difficult moments, to walk and raise our heads.”

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