Although Pereira has long pursued these goals as an expert at Brazil’s Bureau of Indigenous Affairs known as FUNAI, in recent years he has worked as an advisor to the Indigenous Organization of the Javari Valley. That’s because after Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president in 2019, FUNAI began to take a more hands-off approach to protecting indigenous land and people — and the government unabashedly promoted development over environmental protection.
Deeply frustrated, Pereira left the station and embarked on a more independent — and more dangerous — path.
He was last seen alive on June 5 on a boat in the Itaquai River, along with British freelance journalist Dom Phillips, near an area bordering Peru and Colombia. On Wednesday, a fisherman confessed to killing Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, and took police to a site where human remains were found; some of the remains were identified Friday as Phillips property, others are believed to belong to Pereira.
Speaking to The Associated Press several times over the past 18 months, Pereira talked about his decision to leave FUNAI, which he said had become a barrier to his work. After Bolsonaro came to power, the agency was packed with loyalists and people with no experience in indigenous affairs, he said.
“There’s no point in me being there as long as these police officers and army generals are in charge,” he said by phone in November. “I can’t do my job among them.”
As a technical advisor to the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, or Univaja, Pereira helped the group develop a surveillance program to reduce illegal fishing and hunting in a remote area belonging to 6,300 people from seven different ethnic groups, many of whom have had little. no contact with the outside world. He and three other non-Indigenous people trained Indigenous patrols to use drones and other technology to detect illegal activities, photograph them and submit evidence to authorities.
“When it came to helping the indigenous peoples, he did everything he could,” said Jader Marubo, former president of Univaja. “He gave his life for us.”
Like Pereira, Ricardo Rao was an indigenous expert at FUNAI who, in 2019, prepared a dossier on illegal logging in the indigenous lands of Maranhao State. But fearing to be so outspoken under the new regime, he fled to Norway.
“I asked Norway for asylum because I knew the men I accused would have access to my name and kill me, just like what happened to Bruno,” Rao said.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly advocated tapping into the vast resources of indigenous lands, especially their mineral resources, and integrating indigenous peoples into society. He has pledged not to grant further protection to the native land and said in April that he would defy a Supreme Court decision if necessary. Those positions were diametrically opposed to Pereira’s hopes in the Javari Valley.
Before retiring, Pereira was ousted as head of the FUNAI Division for Isolated and Recently Contacted Tribes. That move came shortly after he commanded an operation that evicted hundreds of illegal prospectors from an indigenous area in Roraima state. His position was soon filled by a former evangelical missionary with an anthropological background. The choice sparked outrage as some missionary groups have openly attempted to contact and convert tribes whose voluntary isolation is protected by Brazilian law.
According to a recent report by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies think tank and the nonprofit Associated Indigenists, which includes current and former FUNAI staff.
“Out of FUNAI’s 39 Regional Coordination Offices, only two are headed by FUNAI staffers,” the report said. “Seventeen military personnel, three police officers, two federal police officers and six professionals with no previous connection to public administration have been named” under Bolsonaro.
The 173-page report published Monday says many of the agency’s experts have been fired, unfairly investigated or discredited by its leaders as they tried to protect indigenous peoples.
In response to AP questions about the report’s allegations, FUNAI said in an emailed statement that it is operating “with strict obedience to current law” and not prosecuting its officials.
On the day they went missing, Pereira and Phillips were sleeping in an outpost at the entrance to the main clandestine route into the area, without going past the Indigenous body’s permanent base at the entrance, locals told the AP.
Two indigenous patrolmen told the AP that the pair had transported cellphones from the surveillance project with photos of places where illegal fishermen had been. Authorities have said an illegal fishing network is a focus of the police investigation into the killings.
Pereira was not the first person associated with FUNAI to be murdered in the region. In 2019, an active FUNAI agent, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was shot and killed while riding his motorcycle through the town of Tabatinga. He had been threatened for his work against illegal fishermen before being shot. That crime remains unsolved.
Pereira’s murder will not stop the Javari area border demarcation project from going ahead, said Manoel Chorimpa, a Univaja member involved in the project. And another sign that Pereira’s work will continue is the surveillance efforts of indigenous patrols that have led to the investigation, arrest and prosecution of lawbreakers.
Before his career at FUNAI, Pereira worked as a journalist. But his passion for indigenous affairs and languages - he spoke four – led him to switch careers. His wife, an anthropologist, Beatriz Matos, encouraged him in his work, even if it meant long distances from their home in Atalaia do Norte and their children.
The region’s indigenous people have mourned Pereira as a partner, and an old photo widely shared on social media in recent days shows a group of them gathered shirtless behind Pereira as he shows them something on his laptop. . A child leans gently on his shoulder.
In a statement on Thursday, FUNAI mourned Pereira’s death, praising his work: “The official leaves a huge legacy for the protection of the isolated indigenous people. He became one of the best specialists in the country in this field and worked with the greatest dedication.”
However, before the bodies were found, FUNAI had issued a statement suggesting that Pereira had violated procedure by exceeding his permission within the Javari area. It provoked FUNAI’s supporters to go on strike, alleging that the agency had defamed Pereira and demanded that the president be fired. A court on Thursday ordered FUNAI to withdraw its statement that it is “incompatible with the reality of the facts” and to stop discrediting Pereira.
Rubens Valente, a journalist who has covered the Amazon for decades, said Pereira’s work became inherently riskier when he found it necessary to work independently.
“Tin thieves saw Bruno as a vulnerable person, without the status and power that FUNAI gave him in the region where he was FUNAI coordinator for five years,” said Valente. “When the criminals noticed that Bruno was weak, he became an even bigger target.”
Maisonnave reported from Atalaia do Norte. AP writer Débora Álvares contributed from Brasilia.
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