The dense Amazon jungle in the Javarí Valley, in northeastern Brazil bordering Colombia and Peru, hides the violent disputes between drug traffickers over control of its rivers to transport cocaine, illegal fishing, logging, poaching and mining. Some 6,000 indigenous people who live in the eleven tribes of the Javarí Valley, considered the largest concentration of indigenous communities in the world, see their way of life threatened by the destruction of the ecosystem and the conflicts caused by the exploitation of the rivers and forests of this remote Amazon area.
The 57-year-old British journalist, Dom Phillips, and the 41-year-old Brazilian indigenista, Bruno Araújo Pereira, disappeared on the morning of June 5 when they were sailing down the Itaquai River towards Atalaia do Norte to continue their interviews with the inhabitants of these tribes. Phillips had lived in Brazil for 15 years and was passionate about the Amazon. Pereira was an expert in the field and worked on projects together with the communities to preserve the ecosystem of the valley.
Phillips was preparing a book on the conservation of the Amazon with the help of the American Alicia Patterson Foundation. Periera organized plans with the indigenous people to strengthen surveillance of the area in order to combat illegal fishing, felling of trees to sell the wood, smuggling of protected species and other criminal activities.
The two arrested for the disappearance of Phillips and Pereira are two fishermen brothersAmarildo da Costa ‘Pelado’ y Oseney da Costa. Both of them they have confessed to having murdered them, as reported by police sources and the local press. The detainees committed the crime after Pereira surprised them while they were fishing in a prohibited area within an indigenous reserve.
After detaining them, they took the journalist and the indigenista to an isolated place by a river where they supposedly killed them. butchered, burned and buried. One of the detainees took the police to the scene on Wednesday, where the agents found human remains. Police are investigating five other suspects. While waiting to verify the identity of the bodies, the Brazilian authorities consider the case partially solved.
Academics, reporters and activists who investigate in the Javarí Valley suffer threats and attacks from criminal groups. The demand for fish in the region has increased as populations grow in the Brazilian city of Tabatinga and Leticia in Colombia, a city in southern Colombia along the Amazon River.
Tensions between indigenous people and fishermen
The scarcity of fish in the Amazon River has made the rivers of the Javarí Valley a highly coveted place for smugglers. Tourists in Leticia are likely to taste illegally caught fish. The Javarí Valley has suffered in recent decades from the increase in historical tensions between indigenous tribes and merchants that put this area of the Amazon at risk, the great lung of the planet whose conservation scientists consider key to combating climate change.
Despite the resistance of the local non-indigenous population, the Brazilian federal government created the Javarí Valley Indigenous Territory in 2001 with the aim of protect an area the size of Portugal. Historically, non-indigenous communities living outside this area fished there. The protection of the land prohibited them access. Since then, tensions have grown.
Brazil’s government agency for indigenous affairs, known as Funai, established a permanent base at the confluence of the Itui and Itaquai rivers. “To this day, the locals do not accept that you cannot fish, hunt or cut firewood there”Armando Soares Filho, a retired Funai official who was in charge of monitoring the isolated indigenous peoples in the area between 2003 and 2005, told the AP. The indications suggest that the case of Phillips and Pereira is related to the illegal activities of fish, especially the catch of a species called pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish protected since the 1980s.
“Colombians and Peruvians also considered the area as a reserve so they could take whatever they wanted,” Soares stresses. The biologist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Gabriela Jiménez, explains to LA RAZÓN that “illegal exploitation breaks the balance that the inhabitants of the indigenous tribes have with naturewhich they consider to be the sacred Pachamama”.
drug and money laundering
“Illegal fishing in the Javarí Valley is just the bottom of a criminal chain involving drug cartels and money laundering. Bruno Pereira’s work harms a link in that chain”, says Vinícius Valfré, a Brazilian journalist from the newspaper Estadão, from the Javarí Valley. The reporter details the mechanisms of the cartels to launder money: “The traffickers have businesses in the cities of the Triple Frontier that seek to give the appearance of legality to the real sources of income. They are hotels, restaurants, cafes and tourism companies, for example”.
THE PARALLEL STATE IN THE AMAZON
Illegal fishing in Vale do Javari is just the bottom of a criminal chain that involves drug cartels and money laundering.
Bruno Pereira’s work damages one link in this chain. Today’s report explains why. Follow the 🧶 + pic.twitter.com/0n3sKjc7HN
— Vinícius Valfre (@viniciusvalfre) June 14, 2022
The increase in coca cultivation in Peru the last decade has resulted in an increase in criminal activity in the Javarí Valley. Traffickers process the coca into cocaine, which they then ship through the sparsely populated Javarí Valley and Amazon River for distribution in the region’s cities. The cocaine route continues to other Brazilian cities and Europe.
For years, the Familia del Norte gangs, the First Capital Command and the Red Command fought for control of the Amazon. The Red Command has been considered the dominant cartel for two years. Amazonas is the state with the highest rates of violence in relation to the size of its population. A study by the University of Sao Paulo and the Brazilian Security Forum and the media outlet G1 warns that the number of murders in this region last year has increased by 54%.
Brazilian law limits contact with isolated tribes. Many members of these tribes have been traumatized by contact with outsiders, who spread disease or sow violence. Environmental groups and defenders of indigenous rights have argued that Bolsonaro’s positions, defending the exploitation of the Amazon because “they are poor people” living “in rich lands”, have encouraged many people to participate in illegal activities in the Amazon. without fear of being arrested. Bolsonaro has refused to increase the protected area of the Amazon.
A few months before the presidential elections on October 2, environmental groups fear further exploitation of the Amazon to encourage economic growth at all costs. Bolsonaro has criticized journalists who investigate the area, such as Phillips, considering that they carry out misleading coverage of deforestation. The Brazilian president openly rejects the positions of activists who, like Pereira, defend that indigenous peoples must be protected. The 67-year-old president argues that they should be integrated and that they want economic development.
Bolsonaro has often advocated for exploiting the resources of indigenous territories, especially minerals. Jiménez emphasizes that “when a mine is exploited, the surrounding land also deteriorates.” The Brazilian Amazon has lost 2,867 square kilometers of native vegetation between January and May, 13% more than the same period of the previous year. The Amazon rainforest lost 13,235 square kilometers of topsoil between August 2020 and July 2021, the largest area degraded in a twelve-month period in the last 15 years.
“The loss of biodiversity is a great threat to indigenous communities that have maintained a relationship with nature for centuries in which they know how much they can receive from it and how much they must return to their goddess Pachamama,” underlines the UNAM biologist. Jiménez explains that the smugglers “they cut down large extensions of land to plant fruits that they do not have there, such as corn, citrus or beans.” The researcher highlights other lucrative businesses, such as in the Amazon, such as “the trafficking of exotic animals and endemic plants.” Pereira had run operations to confiscate fish, turtles and turtle eggs. Funai and the army are the only authorities present in the Javarí Valley.
The abandonment of this area by the Brazilian State complicates the survival of the 6,000 people who make up the eleven tribes of the Javarí Valley. The economist and analyst, Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca, defends that the Brazilian authorities have lost the ability to control the Amazon: “Bolsonaro always flirted with the idea of selling the exploitation of the Amazon to large foreign companies, but what he ended up doing was more easy. The government simply left the scene and let anyone do what they wanted, ”he argued this week in an opinion column in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.
The president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, described the region as a “Parallel State directed by the organized crime of transnational drug trafficking that imposes itself where the Brazilian State does not reach”. Impunity is reflected in the case of the murder of investigator Maxciel Pereira dos Santos in 2019, when he was killed in broad daylight while traveling on a motorcycle with his wife in the city of Tabatinga, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Dos Santos, Pereira’s right-hand man at the state agency for the defense of indigenous peoples, Funai, investigated illegal mining, logging, hunting and fishing.
Dos Santos and Pereira helped the police in 2019 develop a plan to destroy 60 rafts of illegal miners who were exploring the areas near the Valle del Javarí indigenous reserve. Dos Santos was assassinated two days before the operation was carried out. Pereira left Funai a month later. “That exposed both of them tremendously,” Alexandre Saraiva, a former delegate of the Federal Police in the Amazon, explained to G1. Research and collaboration with indigenous peoples to preserve the ecosystem pose great risks of being threatened, attacked or killed by criminal groups that threaten the ancestral way of life of isolated indigenous tribes.
In 2018, the indigenous person from the Javarí Valley, Beto Marubo, alerted the NGO Survival International to the serious situation in the Javarí Valley: “The isolated indigenous people of the valley are asking for help. Without Funai, which is being irresponsibly destroyed on purpose”. Marubo expressed in fluent Portuguese the great fear of the 6,000 inhabitants who are part of the eleven tribes of the Javarí Valley: “Perhaps from now on, people will only be able to say that one day they existed.”
A young man sails in a small wooden canoe Thursday morning on a river in the Javarí Valley, accompanied by the lush Amazon jungle and a fine rain. The indigenous have organized protests asking for answers to the crime against Phillips and Pereira, people appreciated in these communities, as Valfré tells from the riverbank: “A light rain falls on the edge of the forest. Around here, many people afflicted by the confirmation of barbarism yesterday.”