When Brazil’s rightwing government removed Bruno Pereira as head of the isolated Indigenous people’s division of the state agency Funai in 2019, he decided to help the traditional people help themselves.
The tribes in the Javari valley along Brazil’s western border with Peru are under threat from the loggers, ranchers, prospectors and drug traffickers increasingly active in the Amazon. Pereira got them GPS systems, drones and other modern equipment to help them delineate their land and set up fences and surveillance apparatus.
It was on one of his trips to the Javari valley that Pereira was shot dead, aged 41, along with Dom Phillips, the British journalist and author he was helping navigate the region for a book called How to Save the Amazon. The pair were ambushed as they sailed home along the Itaquaí river after a four-day reporting trip.
The assassinations have focused global attention on a region where deforestation and violence is growing and where reporters and sertanistas, the name given to the professionals such as Pereira who explore the Brazilian interior and work with Indigenous tribes, are in increasing danger.
“Bruno was the new generation” of sertanistas, said the former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva. “He was carrying the torch forward … And suddenly you have that generation being cruelly killed.”
Pereira was born in Recife, the capital of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco. His father, Max Pereira, was a sales executive with aluminium and glass companies and his mother, Maria das Graças da Cunha, a business administration graduate who worked for the Brazilian government’s pension office. The second of three sons, Bruno graduated from the Colegio Contato in Recife and took Brazil’s university entrance exam with the intention of studying journalism. He passed the exam and enrolled at the Federal University of Pernambuco but dropped out in his third year, deciding his future lay not in an office but in the vast swathes of Brazil far from the populous coast.
He fell in love with the sea and the forest at an early age. Large parts of his childhood were spent at the Boa Viagem beach in Recife, and his holidays were taken in the countryside at his maternal grandparents’ house in Pilar, Paraíba state. That close contact with nature had a profound effect and prompted him to plan a future in which Brazil’s forests – and the people who live in them – played an integral part.
After a short spell as a press trainee at Brazil’s social security office in Recife in 2003 he branched out into the Amazon, determined to get his hands dirty. In 2004 he started work in a reforestation programme at the Balbina hydroelectric dam in Amazonas, the biggest of Brazil’s nine Amazonian states. Around the same time, he began studying for the civil service exam that would secure him a job with Funai, Brazil’s state Indigenous agency. The agency was charged with (and still is, even though it has been undermined and underfunded by the president Jair Bolsonaro) “protecting and promoting” the country’s estimated 235 Indigenous tribes.
Pereira was attracted to the life of a sertanista and he passed the exam in 2010 and began work immediately. He had a particular interest in dealing with remote tribes that had little or no contact with white society. Because many of those tribes are located in the Javari valley region, it was there that Pereira went first. He moved to the small town of Atalaia do Norte in 2010 and remained there until 2015 as Funai’s regional coordinator.
Immediately he formed a bond with the Indigenous people who lived in and around the town. He connected spiritually with them, learning to chant their traditional incantations. He was particularly fascinated by the Kanamari ceremonies that involved consumption of ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew that is used to provoke a state of altered consciousness.
He learned to communicate in five Indigenous languages, Kanamari, Marubo, Matses, Matis and Korubo, and the Indigenous leaders accepted him as part of their community. One of them, Beto Marubo, became like a brother to Pereira and they were godfathers to each other’s children. Pereira’s two sons were both given Indigenous middle names.
It was to Atalaia that Pereira returned in 2019 after he was forced out of Funai. He was appointed head of the isolated Indigenous people’s division in 2018, a job that got harder when Bolsonaro took power in January the following year. Pereira’s task was to set up reserves for the most threatened tribes – not to keep them in, but to keep invaders out – but Bolsonaro was encouraging loggers, ranchers and prospectors to delve deeper into the forest, and the number of invasive encroachments grew.
Pereira went after them, destroying their equipment and even burning boats used by illegal prospectors. It was after one such operation that the Bolsonaro regime removed him. He was not fired, but he was moved from the strategically important position and he decided to act.
He took a leave of absence in late 2019 and joined forces with Indigenous NGOs, principally the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja) and the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recent Contact Indigenous Peoples (OPI).
The alliances allowed him to continue his work securing them safe spaces in which to live. He also raised money for the groups to buy the modern equipment needed.
Atalaia was already a home away from home. Some of his happiest moments were spent sitting on plastic chairs overlooking the Javari river, drinking beer and watching his hometown football club Sport Recife on the television.
There, too, he met his second wife, Beatriz Matos, an anthropologist who was studying the Matses tribe for her doctorate. They shared a home in Atalaia and then from 2016 in Belém and Brasilia.
She survives him, along with their sons, Pedro and Luiz; a daughter, Maria, from his first marriage, to Kathyuscia Pinheiro da Silva, which ended in divorce; and his parents and brothers.
• Bruno da Cunha Araújo Pereira, expert on Indigenous peoples, born 15 August 1980; died 5 June 2022