EXPLAINER: Rising crime and impunity in the Amazon’s Javari Valley
SAO PAULO (AP) — The Javari Valley in the Amazon region, where a British journalist and an indigenous affairs official are missing, is Brazil’s second-largest indigenous territory and sits in a remote area bordering Peru and Colombia. Crime is rampant there and government oversight is weak, adding to fears about the duo’s whereabouts and condition.
Journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira have disappeared in an area that has seen violent conflict between fishermen, poachers and government agents. Violence has increased as drug gangs battle for control of waterways to ship cocaine.
The Javari Valley has been the scene of tension for decades between indigenous tribes and descendants of rubber tappers who live in dozens of communities along the region’s riverbanks.
Despite fierce resistance from the local non-indigenous population, the federal government created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in 2001, with the aim of protecting an area the size of Portugal. Non-Indigenous communities just outside the newly established protected lands had historically fished within them and were no longer permitted to do so. Since then, tensions have only grown.
The indigenous government agency, known as FUNAI, has established a permanent base at the strategic point where the Itui and Itaquai rivers meet. There have been shootouts in recent years between officials and invaders, mostly fishermen. Pereira was previously the head of the FUNAI office there.
“To this day, locals don’t accept that they can’t fish, hunt or cut wood there,” said Armando Soares Filho, a retired FUNAI official in charge of monitoring uncontacted tribes. of the region between 2003 and 2005. Associated Press. “Colombians and Peruvians also saw the area as a reserve for them to take what they wanted.”
The demand for fish in the region has increased as populations increase in the Brazilian city of Tabatinga and Leticia in Colombia. And as fish stocks have become scarce in the Amazon River, the Javari Valley has become an even more coveted resource. Foreign tourists to Leticia are likely to eat illegally caught fish.
The past decade has seen an increase in coca crops planted in Peru, where law enforcement is even sparser than on the Brazilian side of the border.
Traffickers process the coca to make cocaine in Peru, then send it through the sparsely populated Javari Valley and the Amazon River into Brazil. It is then distributed in the major cities of the region, and from there to other Brazilian cities or to Europe.
For years, the local Northern Family gang, the Sao Paulo-based First Capital Command and the Rio de Janeiro-based Red Command have fought for control of Amazonas. Since 2020, the latter has become dominant.
Amazonas is now Brazil’s most violent state per capita, following a 54% increase in murders last year, according to research by the G1 news site, the nonprofit Brazilian Public Security Forum and from the University of Sao Paulo.
UN CONTACTED INDIGENOUS
Eleven indigenous groups live in voluntary isolation in the Javari Valley, the largest concentration of them in the country – about 6,000 people in total. FUNAI is legally bound to protect them.
Brazilian law stipulates that contact with isolated tribes is only allowed as a last resort to preserve their lives. Many members of these tribes or their ancestors have been traumatized by contact with outsiders, who have spread disease or sown violence.
Pereira led one of those rare missions to reach an uncontacted indigenous population there in March 2019 shortly after President Jair Bolsonaro took office and weeks before he went on leave from FUNAI.
Pereira and 22 other men were sent to find a group from the Korubo indigenous community and reunite them with relatives, arguing at the time that it was necessary to prevent confrontation with another indigenous group in the area. The efforts were successful.
FUNAI and the army are the only government authorities present in the Javari area. Almost two years ago, a FUNAI employee was shot dead in Tabatinga, the largest town in the region. The crime was never solved, which residents say contributed to a growing sense of impunity.
Environmental and indigenous rights groups have argued that Bolsonaro’s public stance on indigenous territories has helped embolden some to engage in illicit activities without fear of reprisal.
Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 while pledging to bring development to the Amazon, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and indigenous rights groups. He quickly changed much of the leadership of FUNAI, replacing career native affairs officials with military officers. He also appointed an evangelical pastor who had served as a missionary in the Javari Valley to lead the agency’s uncontacted tribes sector.
Bolsonaro has often advocated for the exploitation of resources from indigenous territories, especially minerals, by non-indigenous people and corporations. He openly rejected the demarcation of new lands for indigenous peoples and, on April 25, promised that he would not do so even if Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered it.
He says his opponents do not have the national interest at heart and has sometimes claimed they are agents of foreign interference. He criticizes journalists, like Phillips, for what he claims is misleading coverage of deforestation that has exploded on his watch to the worst in 15 years. And he openly rejects the views of those, like Pereira, who say indigenous peoples should be protected, saying instead that they should be integrated and desire economic development.
FATE OF PHILLIPS, PEREIRA
It remains unclear what happened to Phillips and Pereira, and authorities have begun to investigate. Pereira is an ally of indigenous movements but is divisive in the region, among others, as he has often led operations to seize illegally mined fish, turtles, turtle eggs and other animal products.
Since leaving FUNAI, Pereira has been helping the local Javari indigenous association, made up of several ethnicities, to organize an independent surveillance network to locate and expel invaders, be they illegal fishermen, loggers , traffickers or religious missionaries. Pereira had received a constant stream of threats for his job and was traveling with a gun. Phillips joined him on the last trip as part of research for a book on Amazon conservation.
The couple were traveling on the Itaquai River, which is the main access route to the Javari Valley and whose banks are home to dozens of non-indigenous families. Boat traffic is light but steady, with at least several watercraft passing each day, mostly small canoes powered by low-powered outboard motors.
It is therefore unlikely that Pereira, who had extensive experience in the area, got lost or that a mechanical problem forced the pair to seek overland passage. Locals speculated that they may have been ambushed.
Maisonnave reported from Manaus.