Land struggle

Bruno and Dom disappearance shows the danger of defending forests in Brazil; see other cases

The Amazon region, where the pair were reported missing, accounts for half of all land conflicts in the country

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo (SP) |
Phillips was writing a book about the struggle for the Amazon forest; Pereira was colaborating with a group of natives making surveillance over the Javari Valley.
Phillips was writing a book about the struggle for the Amazon forest; Pereira was colaborating with a group of natives making surveillance over the Javari Valley. - Evaristo Sá / AFP

Bruno Pereira is seen sitting in the middle of the Javari Valley Indigenous land, Amazonas state. In an old video that went viral this Monday, June 13, the Indigenous affairs expert – reported missing with English journalist Dom Phillips on June 5 – marks the rhythm with his feet while singing Indigenous songs. At the end, he laughs with people who can't be seen in the video. Then he takes two drags on a cigarette.

The video, which could be just a beautiful recording, is involved in a commotion haze in a context of mismatched information and national and international pressure to find the missing men. 

As a tragic paradox that feeds back into itself, the more Brazil needs defenders of forest peoples and their territories, the more dangerous it is to be one of them. According to the Land Pastoral Commission's report released in April this year, the total of deaths in rural conflicts in the country increased by 1000% between 2020 and 2021. 

The Amazon region, where Pereira and Phillips disappeared, is also the scene of emblematic actions and executions of environmental activists such as Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang. The region emerged in the survey carried out by the Land Pastoral Commission as the place that accounts for 52% of all land conflicts in Brazil in 2021. In the nine states that are part of Legal Amazon, 80% of the murders took place.

This Monday (13), while police teams and Indigenous people conducted another day of searches in the Itaquaí river, thousands of people protested in the city of Atalaia do Norte (Amazonas state), where the pair planned to arrive. 

In circles, singing and chanting, people from the seven Indigenous peoples represented by the Union of Indigenous Peoples Organizations of the Javari Valley (Univaja) denounced the lack of actions against invaders of their territories, their indignation with the disappearance of Pereira and Phillips, and the frequent violence against Indigenous peoples and those affiliated with them. Here are some of the most recent cases:

Sarapo Ka'apor  

On May 14, 2021, 45-year-old Sarapo Ka'apor ate fish. Hours later, he was dead. Leader of the Ka'apor Self-Defense Guard at the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land in Maranhão's Amazon, Sarapo fought against illegal loggers, miners, and mining companies in Alto Turiaçu, a protected area. 

Targeted and threatened – as exposed by the Missionary Indigenous Council (Cimi, in Portuguese) last January – Sarapo was included in the state's program to protect threatened people. To no avail. 

“We fear that influential people have paid killers to poison Sarapo”, wrote Tuxa Ta Pame, the Ka'apor people's management council, in a statement. That is why Indigenous peoples are demanding the exhumation of Sarapo's body.

Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara 

Also in Maranhão state, 476km far from São Luís, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara were hit while near Zutiuá Indigenous community, in the city of Arame, on March 31, 2020. 

Zezico was director of the Aruru Indigenous School Educational Center and had been denouncing deforestation and illegal logging in the region.

In Araribóia, too, an Indigenous land area of 413,000 hectares where about 12,000 indigenous people live, the Guajajara people had already experienced, the previous year, the execution of the young Paulino, another of their leaders. 

Paulo Paulino Guajajara 

Nicknamed “The Big Bad Wolf” and “Guardian of the Forest”, Paulo Paulino Guajajara was ambushed while coming back from a day hunting with his friend Laércio Guajajara, who managed to run away, although wounded. It was November 1, 2019, and Paulino did not survive the shoots on his back.

Married and father of a baby, Paulino was also part of the Indigenous group that worked to fight illegal loggers and preserve forests and the Guajajara people. His father, a spiritual leader, is one of the most prominent Guajajara traditional singers.

Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau 

It sounds like the aforementioned stories, but it is actually another one with the same plot. As Bruno Pereira, Sarapo Ka'arapo, and Paulino Guajajara, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau also worked with a self-organized surveillance group in Rondônia that was reporting illegal logging and denouncing it. 

He had received a death threat before it materialized on April 18, 2020. The 33-year-old man was killed on a Saturday morning on a road in the city of Jaru, Rondônia. 

Edited by: Felipe Mendes