There’s an unwritten rule among Amazonian explorers that says the image of a lone swashbuckler, pack on their back and machete in hand, is something to be avoided at all costs. Bruno Pereira agreed 100%.
Pereira, 41, is the indigenous expert who disappeared on Sunday after traveling into a remote corner of the Amazon jungle with the British journalist Dom Phillips. The two men have not been seen since Sunday morning.
A former colleague of Pereira’s at the government’s Indigenous agency Funai described him as caring, dedicated – and totally committed to the traditional peoples of the Amazon.
“The Funai explorers don’t like to be called heroes,” said his friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“But there’s no way to agree with that modesty. These people are heroes and Bruno is one of them. Whether Bruno is alive or dead, his bravery lives in every single person who has accompanied his case since he disappeared. It’s there in every Brazilian who clamors for justice.”
Pereira was removed from his position as Funai’s point man for uncontacted tribes in what was seen as a politically motivated move soon after far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power. His firing in late 2019 came shortly after his team had helped make one of the biggest illegal mines in the Amazon region inoperable.
Bolsonaro wants development at all costs and soon after he came to power progressives like Pereira, who put Indigenous peoples’ traditional ways ahead of the loggers, hunters and miners who covet their land, were ousted from the agency.
Bolsonaro also slashed budgets and staff, “there was no more gas, police protection, absolutely nothing left,” said Antenor Vaz, the former Funai leader in the area where the pair are missing.
“The dismantling meant transferring committed people to other areas away from the field and appointing people that had no connection with Indigenous issues. An evangelical pastor came in to coordinate the work that Bruno used to do.”
The turmoil at Funai marked the end of Pereira’s government career but together with Vaz, Pereira went on to help create the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recent Contact Indigenous Peoples (OPI), an umbrella organization of the 26 Indigenous groups in the Vale do Javari, a remote area on Brazil’s western border with Peru.
The area is almost as vast as Ireland and Wales combined and is home to one of the biggest concentrations of uncontacted tribes in the world.
Pereira’s work there has consisted in helping Indigenous communities organize and monitor their land. The pristine forest area is targeted by illegal hunters and fishers, miners and drug traffickers who covet its natural resources.
In addition to fundraising, the 57-year-old father of three has also run workshops in communities under threat.
Any invasions are reported to Funai and law enforcement agencies in the hope they will take action to rebuff the invaders. It is a job that has become more difficult since Bolsonaro began weakening state funding and oversight.
“Indigenous organizations and their allies such as Bruno are doing what Funai isn’t able to do: defend isolated Indians,” said Maria Emilia Coelho, a friend and colleague of Pereira’s at OPI. “Bruno is a great ally of the Indigenous movement and that is why he came to work with these organizations.”
Throughout his career Pereira has advocated a policy of non-contact with isolated tribes, following in the footsteps of celebrated anthropologists and explorers such as Orlando Villas Boas and Sydney Possuelo.
The policy dates from the 1980s and aims to leave uncontacted tribes in peace, unless they face imminent danger. If threats from invaders such as loggers or miners become too serious to ignore, attempts are made to secure their land and protect the reservations from outsiders.
“The atmosphere has got so much worse in recent years because you have a president who foments violence,” said Fábio Ribeiro, OPI’s executive coordinator. “People who use these tactics gain in confidence with a government like this one. Bolsonaro has supported illegal mines and the impunity has grown massively. We can see that happening in front of our eyes. The number of invasions has increased hugely.”
Pereira has faced regular threats but with a serenity based in the knowledge he was doing crucial work for peoples he loved and respected. He has expressed pessimism about Brazil’s political direction – but knew how to shift the focus away from himself and on to the people that mattered, Ribeiro said.
“He’d see this as a situation that calls the world’s attention to what is going on in Indigenous land; the impunity, the violence, the government’s disregard for basic rights,” Ribeiro said. “And, of course for a new policy to protect isolated groups and their country.”
He would also reject any attempts to portray himself as a martyr or even a successor to the sertanistas – early explorers – who wrote their names into Brazilian history by dedicating their lives to protecting vulnerable tribes.
“If you say he is the heir to these people it makes it about an individual and it diminishes everyone else’s role,” Ribeiro said. “He’s all about putting institutional policies in place. It’s not about person A or person B, it’s about complying with laws and regulations. There are no Indiana Joneses here.”