Bruno Pereira, expert on Brazil’s indigenous communities, has died aged 41

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Bruno Araújo Pereira, a Brazilian expert on isolated indigenous communities who led grueling expeditions to remote corners of the Amazon rainforest, was killed in an attack in western Brazil’s Javari Valley, authorities confirmed on Saturday. He was 41.

Authorities announced that human remains recovered from a remote wooded area belonged to Mr Pereira and Dom Phillips, a Brazil-based Guardian contributor and former Washington Post contract writer. A fisherman had confessed this week to killing the two men as they were traveling along an uninhabited stretch of river leading to the town of Atalaia do Norte, police said. The fishermen led investigators to where the remains were buried.

Police said Mr Pereira and Phillips were shot dead. At least three men are in custody.

Mr Pereira, a longtime official with Brazil’s indigenous protection agency, had accompanied 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 traveled the Itaquai River to interview tribal surveillance teams who tracked criminal activity and defended their lands from invaders.

It was the kind of work Mr. Pereira had dedicated his career to, working closely with Indigenous communities and surveying the whereabouts of uncontacted tribes 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 telling stories, say friends and colleagues, and had a witty, universal sense of humor that allowed him to connect with groups often skeptical of outsiders.

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“When everyone was desperate, Bruno was the guy who calmed the team down,” said Lucas Albertoni, a doctor who has accompanied Mr. Pereira on several expeditions. “Even in the most serious, tense situations, he cracks a joke and everyone laughs. And the jokes are so global that both white and indigenous laugh.”

Since his disappearance on June 5, friends have joked that if he had been found he would have cursed them: “You took too long!”

Mr. Pereira would frequently undertake week-long expeditions by boat and on foot into the dense jungle of the Javari Valley, believed to be home to the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted people: indigenous communities who have shunned the outside world and should be protected from the outside world. It’s a lawless territory larger than South Carolina, where the state’s absence has allowed widespread illegal mining, fishing, and logging.

Mr Pereira had received death threats over the years, most recently from illegal fishermen just before his final trip. But he was known as a meticulous explorer and guide, carefully planning routes and strategies with the help of local indigenous communities.

“He was a person who studied and researched thoroughly,” said Leonardo Lenin, a friend who works with the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples. Mr. Pereira believes in the importance of being embedded in the region, Lenin said, saying that “our feet must be on the ground, we must smell the fire together, feel it within ourselves.”

Lenin said that made It is particularly “painful and disgusting” to hear President Jair Bolsonaro accuse Mr Pereira of embarking on an “adventure”.

“Two people in a boat in a completely wild region like this is an adventure that is not recommended for one,” said Bolsonaro, a right-wing advocate for Amazon development a critic of environmental restrictions.

Mr Pereira’s wife, Beatriz Matos, told Brazil’s TV Globo that she was hurt and offended by the president’s words.

“These are statements that go against the extreme dedication, seriousness and commitment that Bruno has with his work,” she said. “If his workplace, our workplace and that of many others, has become a dangerous place where we need an armed escort to work, then something is wrong. And the problem is not with us. It is with the one who allowed this.”

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According to a family friend, Mr Pereira met Matos, an anthropologist, in the Javari Valley in 2015. Mr Pereira was a father to three children, a 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship and two children aged 2 and 3 with Matos.

Mr. Pereira was born in Pernambuco, a state in northeastern Brazil on the Atlantic coast. He went first in the Amazon in the early 2000s as an employee of a company doing reforestation work around a hydroelectric power station near Manaus. He joined the state indigenous agency FUNAI in 2010 and rose to become the general coordinator for isolated communities working in Brasília.

Under his leadership, in 2019 the agency conducted the largest indigenous contact expedition since the 1980s. That same year, he coordinated an operation that dismantled an illegal mining program in the Javari Valley.

Then Bolsonaro came to power – and soon cut funding for the agency. Mr Pereira was relieved of his post.

Mr Pereira accompanied Phillips on a 17-day trip to the Javari Valley for a 2018 Guardian article. Phillips began the story by describing a morning with Mr Pereira: “Bruno Pereira, an official with Brazil’s Indigenous Authority, just crouches in shorts and flip flops in the mud by a fire and smashes his cooked skull on a monkey with a spoon and eats his brain for breakfast while discussing politics.”

Mr. Pereira told Phillips on the challenges of working with a government that has been draining key resources from the agency. But he downplayed the difficulties facing officials like him.

“It’s not about us,” Mr Pereira was quoted as saying. “The indigenous people are the heroes.”

He worked as a consultant for the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union or Univaja until his death. He had trained indigenous peoples who did not speak Portuguese to use satellite technology to map invasions on their territory. He was not working in an official capacity when he accompanied Phillips on his final trip.

Throughout his career, Mr. Pereira believed in the importance of avoiding contact with isolated indigenous peoples. But as Phillips wrote, his surveillance expeditions provided “invaluable information” to help protect these communities.

Mr. Pereira only contacted outlying communities to avoid conflict with other groups. In 2019, he helped broker an agreement between the Korubo and the Matis of the Javari Valley so that one would not encroach on the other’s territory, said Artur Nobre Mendes, a former president of FUNAI. When Mr. Pereira approached the Korubo, Nobre said he brought with him some Korubo people with whom he had already made contact.

“There were several dilemmas we went through to make that decision and many others, even to have these images of them for the whole world to see,” Mr Pereira told TV Globo of the 2019 expedition. “But people also have the right to choose how they live and own their land, and we will continue to fight for that. It’s time for everyone to get out of their own bubble and understand that there are other Brazilians out there. ”

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Albertoni, the doctor who accompanied Mr. Pereira on expeditions, said Mr. Pereira placed great emphasis on learning ancestral songs important to the culture of the communities in which he spent time. He recalled seeing Mr. Pereira sing with a Kanamari community while they all drank ayahuasca, a traditional psychoactive brew sacred in many indigenous cultures.

“You could see how much of an enlightened soul Bruno was,” said Albertoni. “There in the dark, you couldn’t tell the difference between him and the indigenous people singing in their language because his connection with them and their culture was so intense.”

He has started teaching his young children the Kanamari songs, Albertoni said.

“What surprised me was his sensitivity and interest in learning more,” said Beto Marubo, Coordinator at Univaja and member of the Marubo community. He described Mr Pereira as a “cheerful and playful person” who managed to connect with the often reserved indigenous people. “The natives respected him as a knower of the jungle… of the dangers and the knowledge that the jungle offers.”

A 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 to all Javari people”.

“We have lost a great man who fought for the indigenous lands and the Amazon forest,” said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fears for her safety. “He always motivated us to go and lift our heads in the most difficult moments.”