ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — A high-level delegation of the Brazilian government traveled on Monday to the remote corner of the Amazon rainforest where British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were murdered last year, to demonstrate just how much Brazil’s new government differs from that of former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
The group was led by Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous Peoples. She was joined by the widows of both slain men. The trip involved several flights including a seaplane to arrive in Atalaia do Norte, an impoverished city by the banks of Javari River.
“We are here to reestablish the presence of the Brazilian government in the Javari Valley region,” Guajajara told a mostly Indigenous crowd gathered in a small, stifling auditorium. “It is no longer possible for Indigenous people to be cowed and afraid within their own territory.”
During his four-year term which ended in January, Bolsonaro attempted to open Indigenous territories to mining, large-scale agriculture, and logging. His promises, combined with the defanging of environmental law enforcement, led to a surge of invasions into Indigenous territories. Monday marked the first time that Pereira’s widow, Beatriz Matos, has returned to the place where her husband was murdered. She was accompanied by Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’ widow. At several moments, both were moved to tears, receiving warm embraces, songs of tribute, handmade gifts, and speeches of gratitude from Indigenous people present.
Matos was recently named head of the Department for Territorial Protection and Isolated and Newly Contacted Peoples at the Indigenous ministry. She is an anthropologist who did her fieldwork in the region. Her husband had a similar post until, frustrated with the Bolsonaro government, he took leave to consult for the Javari Valley association of Indigenous people.
Addressing the crowd, Matos said her family and that of Dom Phillips would be forever grateful for the commitment local people showed to finding the men, and “also the respect, the care, the tributes, and the spiritual guidance.”
“I will work for the government and will carry Javari along with me. The department will be always open to you,” she told the crowd.
The Javari Valley Indigenous Territory is roughly the size of Portugal and home to 6,300 people from seven different ethnic groups, some of whom have had no contact with the outside world. For years, the area has been targeted by illegal fishermen and poachers slipping past government outposts to extract riches from the protected waters and forest.
With environmental and Indigenous agencies woefully underfunded and understaffed during the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, the ransacking grew worse. Pereira took leave to help local Indigenous people catalog and report illegal hunting and fishing on their own. In so doing, he ran afoul of the local illegal fishing racket. Phillips, who was writing a book on the Amazon, was accompanying him on an expedition last June when they were killed.
Their disappearance prompted an international outcry and a massive search. Once their bodies were found, chopped and burned, pressure mounted on authorities to find the killers.
Suspects in the murders are in custody in federal prisons. There is no date set for the trial. Brazil’s federal police said last month that a local fish trader, Ruben Dario da Silva Villar, conceived the crime and they plan to indict him. Villar provided the ammunition to kill the pair, made phone calls to the confessed killer before and after the crime, and paid his lawyer, police said. He denies wrongdoing.
Crime still plagues the border region. On February 23, armed gunmen attacked a federal boat belonging to the Indigenous health agency near the closest city; they made off with the craft and thousands of liters of fuel. They left two crew members bound and blindfolded in the woods.
On, Monday, the new president of Brazil’s federal environmental agency, Rodrigo Agostinho, promised that the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office January 1, will reinforce its presence in the region. “We will work hard to impose order in this region. One can’t tolerate wrongdoing anymore.”
In an interview Monday, Agostinho said the priority will be to investigate and prosecute those who benefit from illegal mining instead of the miners.
During the event, Indigenous leaders read a long letter containing several demands, ranging from more and better-equipped checkpoints along the vast territory to better healthcare.