EXPLAINER - Crime and impunity rise in Amazon's Javari Valley

SAO PAULO -- Brazil's Javari Valley in the Amazon region, where a British journalist was missing and an Indigenous affairs official were reported missing, is Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory.

EXPLAINER - Crime and impunity rise in Amazon's Javari Valley

SAO PAULO -- Brazil's Javari Valley in the Amazon region, where a British journalist was missing and an Indigenous affairs official were reported missing, is Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory. It lies in an isolated area that borders Peru and Colombia. There is high crime and little government oversight, which raises concerns about the safety and well-being of the duo.

Dom Phillips, a reporter, and Bruno Pereira, an Indigenous expert, were both killed in a conflict zone that has witnessed violent clashes between poachers, fisherman and government agents. As drug trafficking gangs fight for control over waterways to ship cocaine, violence has increased.

HISTORIC TENSIONS

The Javari Valley has been the scene of tension for decades between Indigenous tribes, descendants of rubber tappers, and dozens of communities that live along the riverbanks.

The federal government created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in 2001 despite fierce opposition from the non-Indigenous population. It aimed to protect an area roughly the same size as Portugal. Non-Indigenous communities located outside of the new protected land were prohibited from fishing within the area. Tensions have only increased since then.

FUNAI, the government's Indigenous agency was established at the strategic junction where the Itui-Itaquai rivers meet. Invaders and officials have had numerous shootouts over the years, mostly between fishermen and officials. Pereira was the previous head of FUNAI's bureau in that country.

"To this day the locals don’t accept that they cannot fish, hunt, or cut wood there," Armando Soares Filho told The Associated Press. He was a former FUNAI official and was responsible for monitoring the uncontacted tribes in the area between 2003-2005. "Peruvians and Colombians also saw the area as a reserved for them to do whatever they like."

As the population grows in Brazil's Tabatinga and Colombia’s Leticia, so has the demand for fish in this region. The Javari Valley is now a highly sought-after resource, as the Amazon River's fish stocks have become scarce. Tourists from abroad visiting Leticia will likely eat illegally caught fish.

DRUGS TRAFFICKING

In Peru, law enforcement has been even more scarce than on the Brazilian side of border in the past decade. This has led to a boom in coca crop production.

Peruvian traffickers make cocaine from coca and then transport it via Brazil's remote Javari Valley or Amazon River. The cocaine is then distributed to major Brazilian cities and to Europe.

The Amazonas control was contested for years by the Family of the North gang, the First Command of the Capital based in Sao Paulo, and the Red Command based in Rio de Janeiro. The latter has been dominant since 2020.

Amazonas is now Brazil’s most violent state per head, following a 54% increase last year in the number of murders, according to a study done by G1, the non-profit Brazilian Forum of Public Security, and the University of Sao Paulo.

UNCONTACTED INDIGENOUS

The Javari Valley is home to eleven Indigenous groups, which together make up approximately 6,000 people. FUNAI is legally bound to protect them.

Brazilian law states that contact with isolated tribes should only be made as a last resort to save their lives. Contact with outsiders who have spread disease or used violence has traumatized many members of these tribes and their ancestors.

Pereira was part of one rare mission to contact an Indigenous population uncontacted in March 2019, shortly after President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office. This was just weeks before he left FUNAI for a leave.

Pereira and 22 other men were sent to the area to locate a Korubo Indigenous group and reunite them with their families. They argued that it was necessary to avoid confrontation with another Indigenous group. They were successful.

The only two government agencies in Javari are FUNAI and the Army. A FUNAI employee was killed in Tabatinga, which is the largest city in the region, almost two years ago. Locals claim that the crime was not solved and has led to an increase in impunity.

BOLSONARO'S INFLLUENCE

Environmental and Indigenous rights groups argue that Bolsonaro’s public stance on Indigenous territories has encouraged some to engage illicitly without fear of reprisals.

Bolsonaro was elected to office in January 2019, promising to bring development to Amazon. This alarming promise came at the expense of Indigenous rights groups and environmentalists. Bolsonaro quickly changed the leadership of FUNAI, replacing career Indigenous affairs officers with military officers. He also appointed an Evangelical Pastor, who was a Javari Valley missionary, to head the agency's isolated tribal sector.

Bolsonaro has advocated for the tapping of Indigenous territory's resources, especially minerals, by companies and non-Indigenous. Bolsonaro has repeatedly rejected the idea of redrawing new lands for native populations and vowed to not do so, even if ordered by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

He claims his opponents are not interested in the national interest and has at times claimed they are agents of foreign meddlers. Phillips is criticized for misleadingly reporting on deforestation, which he says has increased to its worst level in 15 years. He also openly disapproves of Pereira's views that Indigenous people should not be protected. Instead, he believes they should be integrated with economic development.

FATE OF PHILLIPS PEREIRA

Authorities are investigating the disappearance of Phillips, Pereira and others. Pereira is an ally of Indigenous movements, but divisive to others in the region, as he led many operations to seize turtle eggs, fish, and other illegally extracted animal products.

Pereira, who took leave from FUNAI to help Javari's local Indigenous group, made up of many ethnicities, has helped organize an independent surveillance network that can locate and expel intruders. These could include illegal fishermen, loggers or traffickers. Pereira was subject to constant threats and travelled with a gun. Phillips was part of Pereira's research for a book about Amazon conservation.

They were traveling along the Itaquai River which is the main access route to Javari Valley. Itaquai River's banks are home to many non-Indigenous families. The boat traffic is not heavy but it is regular. There are usually at least three craft per day. These are mainly small canoes with low-power outboard motors.

Pereira, who was an expert in the area, is unlikely to have lost his way or been stranded. Some locals speculate that the pair may have been captured.

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Maisonnave reported out of Manaus.

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