In June, an advocate for the Amazon’s Indigenous groups and a journalist accompanying him were murdered in Brazil’s Javari Valley, a dense stretch of forest — larger than Austria — that has the highest concentration of uncontacted Indigenous groups in the world. The advocate, Bruno Pereira, was working to stop the relentless incursions by miners, loggers, narco-traffickers, fishers, and hunters who are illegally encroaching on Indigenous land under the regime of Brazil’s nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, which has refused to enforce environmental and territorial laws.
Beto Marubo, a prominent Indigenous leader in Brazil and coordinating member of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), was a friend of Pereira’s and has been working alongside him to protect the Javari Valley, whose location on the border with Peru and near Colombia has made it especially susceptible to illegal incursions. Eight men suspected of belonging to an illegal fishing gang in the Amazon have been arrested in connection with the murders of Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, who was researching a book called How to Save the Amazon.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Marubo describes the crucial work that Pereira was doing to enable Indigenous groups to monitor and protect their territories; talks about how, under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s agency to protect Indigenous lands and people, known as FUNAI, has virtually stopped defending Indigenous territories; and explains how Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous policies have led to an increase in murders of Indigenous leaders and a sharp rise in environmental destruction.
“All of [these] factors were caused by the absence of the Brazilian government in the Amazon,” says Marubo. “Organized crime is taking over this void left by the state.”
Yale Environment 360: Tell me about the land monitoring you were doing with Bruno Pereira’s help.
Beto Marubo: Before Bruno started working with UNIVAJA, he already worked on the issue of territorial monitoring. It was the work he most dedicated himself to when he worked for FUNAI. We met each other because of that work. In 2019, when he asked to take a leave from FUNAI, I invited him to come work with us. He accepted the invitation. I was the one who worked on the organizational part, finding partners, people who could help us with territorial protection, and he worked in the field.
Our initiative really started because of the absence of the [federal government] in the Javari Valley, which isn’t news in the Amazon in general, and the deliberate destruction of FUNAI at a regional and national level, the weakening of field work. We had no guarantee that any federal agency in Brazil would protect uncontacted Indigenous groups, which we were especially worried about in the context of the Bolsonaro government. So we had to take the initiative through the Indigenous organization UNIVAJA to fill that role.
We focus on the Javari Valley. Since FUNAI wasn’t doing its job, and the federal police, military, and other state-run institutions weren’t either, we decided to quantify the information that was out there. Because up until that point all we ever heard was that there was an increase in invasions of Indigenous lands, that uncontacted Indigenous groups were in danger. The discourse was very vague. We wanted to quantify the information in a technical way, to give details about what was happening.
“With the arrival of the Bolsonaro government, state action became null.”
That’s when the UNIVAJA surveillance team was created. It was a team of Indigenous people from the villages, but they didn’t have basic technical knowledge of computers, cartography, photography, and video, much less about operating complex equipment that required, at the very least, that knowledge. So we had to teach them. Bruno was fundamental in this. Bruno started to train them in how to use cartographic information, and how to use apps and equipment, like cellphones, to monitor their territory in a simple way that would be of great technical use. He taught them how to capture images with drones — the small ones that are really accessible — and there were several benefits. But the main reason we had to do this was the weakening of FUNAI and the increase of invasions on our territory, especially because of the risks to the uncontacted Indigenous peoples living in the Javari Valley.
e360: What were you and other Indigenous groups in the region doing to monitor and protect your land before Bruno helped?
Marubo: We were already monitoring our territory, but in a more institutionalized way in partnership with the government. When there weren’t any federal civil servants, any FUNAI staff available, FUNAI was able to hire, through more flexible means, Indigenous people themselves to work from their surveillance bases. So we had Indigenous people already working, but officially, jointly, monitoring the Javari Valley. But this was with FUNAI at the forefront, FUNAI in charge.
Now the difference [under Bolsonaro] is that we’ve had to act alone. We’re much more vulnerable now. We have no support.
e360: This new monitoring project with Bruno and UNIVAJA started in 2019, when Bolsonaro took office. What was the situation like before?
Marubo: The Indigenous issue in Brazil has never been a priority for any government. That’s worth highlighting. FUNAI, for example, has never been a priority for any government. However, the Brazilian government did, before, take action — with limitations, but the state did take action — by way of FUNAI and security agencies, like the federal police, the military, and others. For better or worse, they did something. There was a plan.
e360: How did it change when Bolsonaro became president?
Marubo: With the arrival of the current Bolsonaro government, state action became null. It all became just rhetoric. He says things like, “We have autonomy over the Amazon … We take care of our Amazon.” But none of this is true.
There’s that issue, and then there’s another important and even more harmful factor, which is that he directly supports the actions of those invading Indigenous lands. He even supports initiatives in the National Congress to create laws against the protection of the environment, against Indigenous rights, against people who depend on the Amazon rainforest. There are potential laws that are intended to relativize the right to land, like Bill 490, currently in the National Congress and still under analysis, and Bill 191, which allows mining on Indigenous lands. Other legal mechanisms — and institutes — [protecting the environment] were weakened or simply extinguished. This has also contributed to the increase in invasions of Indigenous land. In other words, there is an indirect, implicit, tacit authorization coming from the federal government.
The result of this is what we’re seeing today through the increase in indicators of environmental destruction in Brazil, especially in the Amazon, and the increase in crimes against the lives of those who want to protect the environment.
“Despite the national and international repercussions of the deaths of my friends, not much has changed.”
Pereira and Dom Phillips were two more victims of this process. There have been several others, too. There’s Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia, who died [in 2020] in the same context. There’s Paulino Guajajara in Maranhão [killed in 2019], who was doing the same work as UNIVAJA. There are several other leaders who have become victims.
In the Javari Valley, we also have [Indigenous expert and FUNAI employee] Maxciel [Pereira dos Santos], who was killed in 2019, apparently for the same reason — that he was protecting Indigenous land in the Javari Valley.
All of this, all of the factors I mentioned, they were caused by the absence of the Brazilian government in the Amazon. Organized crime is taking over this void left by the state.
e360: There was hope that there might be a small silver lining when Pereira and Phillips disappeared, that authorities might step up and start protecting the Javari Valley because of what happened. What’s the situation like in the region now?
Marubo: It went back to the way it was before. The same things that used to happen are still happening now. Despite the national and international repercussions of the deaths of my friends, not much has changed. The state is still absent.
Ironically, when the search [for the bodies of Pereira and Phillips] was happening, all the security forces came out to help: military police, civil police, federal police, the army, the navy, the air force, lots of people. But after they found their bodies, things went back to the same way they were before. Invasions of Indigenous land haven’t changed. They’re invading the same way they were before. There’s a complete lack of security in an area that is very tense, where transnational crimes are rampant because we’re in a border region that is known in the world for its violence. Nothing has changed at all.
e360: What do you want from the government that you don’t have now?
Marubo: At this point it’s not what we want; it’s what we need.
Brazil is going to have a very big responsibility in the coming years in terms of environmental issues. And if it doesn’t adapt to the rules of common sense and what it’s been promising the international community — the fulfillment of environmental protection goals, the fulfillment of goals on climate change — it will either be pushed aside or suffer an economic boycott.
Our expectation is that the government — the next government, not this crazy government we have now — makes this commitment and understands that it will have to use all of the strength of the Brazilian state to reverse the current setbacks caused by the Bolsonaro government.
FUNAI has to play a fundamental role in this plan. Because FUNAI is the body that has the task of protecting Indigenous lands and, in some cases, the responsibility of the physical protection of Indigenous people, especially uncontacted Indigenous people. It needs to have the strength to do its job, as do other institutions, like IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], the federal police, the military. They need to be systematic and strong and set a clear example. If they don’t, it will take more than the next 10 years to get out of this quagmire the government has put us in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.