The Javari Valley a Year After Bruno and Dom Vanished

By John Reid

Translated from the June 6 article published in O Globo, Rio de Janeiro

            One morning this March I was on the Itaquaí river with Beto Marubo and three agents packing automatic weapons. “That’s where they killed Bruno,” Beto shouted over the roar of the engine, pointing at a spot on the bank. He was heading into the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory for the first time since Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips’s bodies were found, and since the inauguration of President Lula, who personally pledged to restore security in the Javari. We spent the next month traveling Beto’s homeland to see how things had changed.

Beto works to protect the area from fishermen, poachers, gold-miners, loggers, and religious zealots. That’s officially the government’s job. But by 2020, FUNAI, the responsible agency, had so thoroughly abdicated its duties that the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA) formed its own patrol team. Beto, himself a former FUNAI agent, invited Bruno, another FUNAI veteran, to help train them. 

            Bruno and Dom’s killings were a personal tragedy for those who knew them. But they are also part of a planetary problem. At the time I befriended Beto and Bruno I was working on a book called Ever Green with the late biologist, Thomas Lovejoy, documenting how five “megaforests,” including the Amazon, are essential to the climate, biology and cultural diversity of our planet. If forest defenders need bodyguards, Earth is in trouble.

            Fortunately, Lula’s government acknowledged the threat to Beto’s life and provided security. The new Minister for Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, led top officials to the Javari in February. Soon after, a Federal Police boat arrived full of agents. And we watched Rosa Weber, president of the Supreme Federal Tribunal, descend from a helicopter deep in the Javari to hear chiefs describe the invaders who steal vital fish and game.  

            We motored for days up the silty Ituí river, and saw almost no boats. “Are the fishermen gone?” I asked Beto hopefully. “No, they’re in the lakes.” He gestured at the wall of trees on the banks that obscure oxbow lakes where fishing crews harpoon delicious arapaima, mouth-breathing fish that grow to the size of park benches. The UNIVAJA team that Bruno trained surveyed all 94 lakes along the lower Ituí. Twice. They found 5 major fishing camps and dozens of sites with evidence of illegal fishing according to Orlando Possuelo, who worked with Bruno and now heads the training work. The week we arrived, a group of Korubo, the Javari’s most recently contacted people, reported seizing an armed fisherman, only to see FUNAI agents release the man. 

            We saw no sign of FUNAI on the lower Ituí. Or on the upper Ituí, one of the Javari’s hot spots for near-encounters with isolated peoples. FUNAI once deployed experts like Beto and Bruno to train the frontline villages on how to avoid contact. In contrast, the former government’s regional head infamously encouraged the Marubos to shoot the isolados. In the village of São Joaquim we met Mantxa, a young chief who had moved twice to avoid contact with isolated peoples. His new longhouse was barely started so we ate lunch in a tiny hut full of dogs while Mantxa described yet another visit, last August, of long-haired muscular men who discoursed from a distance in an unintelligible tongue. 

I asked Beto later about all the dogs. 

“To sound the alarm when the isolados come.” 

            These meetings are dangerous, but a positive ecological sign; the vast intact forests of the Javari allow these mysterious human societies, as well as the established riverside villages, to live well. Day after day I shared succulent wild meat and sweet banana mingau (a drinkable warm porridge) while listening to jokes and stories told in Marubo in longhouses whose beams were hung with huge bunches of corn and bananas. When we talk in global forums about healthy forests with healthy people in them, we rarely permit ourselves to imagine that such places exist. The Javari is one. There is no deforestation, still plenty of food, and enough space for diverse cultures to thrive. This is what Bruno was fighting for, what Dom was writing about, what Brazil’s exemplary constitution promises, and what the rest of us should support. 

            I asked Beto last week how things were going since our visit to the territory. “Absolutely nothing has changed. The Federal Police are there but they don’t have resources to do their job. Where is the Army, the Navy, Ibama? We need them all.” The talented people now in government give me some hope, but, a year after we lost our friends, Lula’s jungle looks troublingly similar to nature under pressure around our beautiful world; money and violence override laws and decency. 

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