SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Bruno Araújo Pereira, a Brazilian expert on isolated Indigenous communities who led grueling expeditions into remote corners of the Amazon rainforest, was killed in an attack in the Javari Valley of western Brazil, authorities confirmed on Saturday. He was 41.
Bruno Pereira, expert on Brazil’s Indigenous communities, dead at 41
Authorities announced that human remains retrieved from an isolated forest location belonged to Mr. Pereira and Dom Phillips, a Brazil-based contributor to the Guardian and former contract writer for The Washington Post. A fisherman this week had confessed to killing the two men as they traveled on an uninhabited stretch of river leading to the city of Atalaia do Norte, police said. The fishermen led investigators to the location where the remains were buried.
Police said Mr. Pereira and Phillips were shot to death. At least three men are in custody.
Mr. Pereira, a longtime official with Brazil’s Indigenous protection agency, had been accompanying his friend and frequent travel companion on a reporting trip for a book the British journalist was writing about conservation in the Amazon. The men had been traveling the Itaquai River to interview Indigenous surveillance teams who were mapping criminal activity and defending their land from invaders.
It was the kind of work to which Mr. Pereira had devoted his career, collaborating closely with Indigenous communities and studying the whereabouts of uncontacted peoples threatened by the encroachment of modernity. A passionate defender of the Amazon, Mr. Pereira gained the trust of Indigenous partners by embedding and investing in their communities, according to friends and colleagues. He could understand several languages of the Javari Valley. He could often be heard singing Indigenous songs. He loved to tell stories, friends and colleagues say, and had a witty, universal sense of humor that allowed him to connect with groups that are often skeptical of outsiders.
“When everyone was desperate, Bruno was the guy who calmed the team down,” said Lucas Albertoni, a physician who accompanied Mr. Pereira on several expeditions. “Even in the most serious, most tense situations, he makes a joke and everyone laughs. And the jokes are so global that both White and Indigenous people laugh.”
Since his disappearance June 5, friends have joked that if he had been found, he would have cursed them out: “You took too long!”
Mr. Pereira frequently went on weeks-long expeditions by boat and foot into the thick jungle of the Javari Valley, considered home to the world’s largest concentration of the uncontacted: Indigenous communities that have avoided and are supposed to be protected from the outside world. It’s a lawless territory larger than South Carolina where the absence of the state has allowed widespread illegal mining, fishing and logging to move in.
Mr. Pereira had received death threats over the years, most recently from illegal fishermen shortly before his last trip. But he was known as a meticulous researcher and guide, carefully planning routes and strategy with the help of local Indigenous communities.
“He was a person who studied and researched deeply,” said Leonardo Lenin, a friend who works with the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples. Mr. Pereira believed in the importance of embedding in the region, Lenin said, saying that “our feet have to be on the ground, we have to be smelling the fire together, feeling it in ourselves.”
Lenin said that made it especially “painful and revolting” to hear President Jair Bolsonaro accuse Mr. Pereira of having set out on an “adventure.”
“Two people in a boat, in a completely wild region like this, is an adventure that isn’t recommendable for one to do,” said Bolsonaro, a right-wing advocate for developing the Amazon and a critic of environmental restrictions.
Mr. Pereira’s wife, Beatriz Matos, told Brazil’s TV Globo she was hurt and offended by the president’s words.
“These are statements that contradict the extreme dedication, seriousness and commitment that Bruno has with his work,” she said. “If his workplace, our workplace and that of many others, became a dangerous place, where we need an armed escort to be able to work, there is something very wrong there. And the problem is not with us. It is with the one who allowed this to happen.”
Mr. Pereira met Matos, an anthropologist, in the Javari Valley in 2015, according to a family friend. Mr. Pereira was a father of three, a 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, and two children, ages 2 and 3, with Matos.
Mr. Pereira was born in Pernambuco, a state in northeastern Brazil along the Atlantic coast. He first went to the Amazon in the early 2000s as an employee of a company doing reforestation work around a hydroelectric plant near Manaus. He joined the government Indigenous agency, FUNAI, in 2010 and rose to general coordinator for isolated communities, working in Brasília.
Under his leadership, the agency in 2019 carried out the largest Indigenous contact expedition since the 1980s. That same year, he coordinated an operation that dismantled an illegal mining scheme in the Javari Valley.
Then Bolsonaro came to power — and soon slashed funding for the agency. Mr. Pereira was removed from his position.
Mr. Pereira accompanied Phillips on a 17-day journey in the Javari Valley for a 2018 article in the Guardian. Phillips began the story with a description of a morning with Mr. Pereira: “Wearing just shorts and flip-flop as he squats in the mud by a fire, Bruno Pereira, an official at Brazil’s government indigenous agency, cracks open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats its brains for breakfast as he discusses policy.”
Mr. Pereira told Phillips about the challenges of working with a government that was depriving the agency of critical resources. But he downplayed the difficulties for officials such as himself.
“It’s not about us,” Mr. Pereira was quoted as saying. “The indigenous are the heroes.”
Until his death, he was working as an adviser for the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union, or Univaja. He had been training Indigenous people who didn’t speak Portuguese to use satellite technology to map invasions in their territory. When he accompanied Phillips on his final trip, he was not working in an official capacity.
Throughout his career, Mr. Pereira believed in the importance of avoiding contact with isolated Indigenous people. But as Phillips wrote, his monitoring expeditions provided “invaluable intelligence” to help protect those communities.
Mr. Pereira made contact with isolated communities only to prevent conflict with other groups. In 2019, he helped broker an agreement between the Korubo and the Matis in the Javari Valley so that one would not encroach into the other’s territory, said Artur Nobre Mendes, a former president of FUNAI. When Mr. Pereira approached the Korubo, Nobre said, he brought along some Korubo people he had already contacted.
“There are several dilemmas that we went through to make this decision, and many others even to get these images of them for the whole world to see,” Mr. Pereira told TV Globo about the expedition in 2019. “But people also have the right to choose how to live and to own their land, and we will continue to fight for it. It is time for everyone to get out of their own bubble and understand that there are other Brazils out there. ”
Albertoni, the doctor who accompanied Mr. Pereira on expeditions, said Mr. Pereira made a point of learning ancestral songs important to the culture of the communities where he spent time. He recalled seeing Mr. Pereira singing with a Kanamari community while they all drank ayahuasca, a traditional psychoactive brew that is sacred in many Indigenous cultures.
“You could see how much of an enlightened soul Bruno was,” Albertoni said. “There in the dark, you couldn’t tell the difference between him and the Indigenous people singing in their language, because his relationship with them and their culture was so intense.”
He had begun teaching his young children the Kanamari songs, Albertoni said.
“What surprised me was his sensibility and interest in learning more,” said Beto Marubo, a coordinator with Univaja and member of the Marubo community. He described Mr. Pereira as a “cheerful and playful person” who managed to connect with Indigenous people who were often reserved. “The Indigenous came to respect him as a connoisseur of the jungle … of the dangers and of the knowledge that the jungle offers.”
One member of the Kanamari community who was with Mr. Pereira in the days and hours before his disappearance described his death as a “great loss for all the people of the Javari.”
“We lost a great man, who fought for the Indigenous lands and the Amazon forest,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “He always motivated us, in the most difficult moments, to walk and raise our heads.”