Brazil Indigenous agency staff strike over Bruno Pereira disappearance

Employees walk off the job amid anger over statements criticising the former Funai employee who went missing with Dom Phillips

Employees with Brazil’s national Indigenous foundation (Funai) have launched a one-day strike, amid anger over what they say is the dismantling of a key government agency and official statements criticising Bruno Pereira, the former Funai employee who went missing along with the British journalist Dom Phillips last week.

Funai staff and related civil service employees walked off the job at 9am on Tuesday in Brasília, Florianópolis and Dourados, and others are voting on whether to launch a wider strike next week, officials with the unions said.

They had demanded that Funai’s president, Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva, increase security for staff working in the Amazon as well as retract Funai statements criticising Pereira in the days after his disappearance. No response was forthcoming.

Pereira and Phillips were in the Vale do Javari region in western Brazil when their boat disappeared on 5 June. They had been interviewing Indigenous people for a book Phillips was writing on sustainable development in the region.

Police last week arrested one man who had threatened the pair a day before they vanished and search parties discovered some of their belongings half-submerged in a river on Sunday. But the whereabouts of the activist and the journalist remain a mystery and the search was continuing on Tuesday, nine days after they were last seen.

Pereira worked with Funai until 2019 when he was removed from his post because of what he believed was a successful operation to cripple illegal mines in an area reserved for the exclusive use of Indigenous peoples.

“The disappearance of Bruno and Dom was the last straw,” said Priscila Colotetti, executive director of Indigenistas Associados, an association of Funai employees. “Bruno was a worker at Funai and he did his job supremely well. He represents the dismantling of Funai.”

Funai was created in 1967, the latest iteration of an agency whose function is to protect and promote the rights of Brazil’s estimated 235 Indigenous tribes – many of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world.

Employees say it has been systematically undermined by Brazil’s last two presidents and especially Jair Bolsonaro, the rightwing leader who took power in 2019. Under his government, deforestation has soared and environmental protection agencies have been weakened.

The arch-nationalist notoriously said he will not grant “one more centimetre of land” to Indigenous peoples awaiting their own reserves. Recent Funai presidents include a dentist who was also an evangelical pastor, and the current incumbent is a former police chief.

One union leader told the Guardian that an organisation with 2,500 employees in 2003 now has only 1,457. They complain of reduced and poorly apportioned budgets and a demoralised staff, especially those who dare to criticise the agency’s direction under Bolsonaro.

Funai’s president did not answer an interview request but in an emailed statement the agency claimed it had doubled its budget to the Vale do Javari over the last three years and increased funding to other parts of the agency, particularly those tending to isolated tribes.

Such statistics, though, were dismissed by Indigenous advocates scandalised by Bolsonaro’s open hostility to Indigenous people and vociferous support for development in a region often called the lungs of the world.

“Funai was created to protect the Indigenous people and today it is clearly working against the interests of Indigenous people” said Sydney Possuelo, a former head of the foundation. “It’s absurd.”

Possuelo is a legend in Indigenous circles, famous for his policy of sheltering the most threatened tribes in specially created reserves. Now 82, he left Funai 16 years ago but is still one of the country’s most outspoken voices in defence of Brazil’s traditional peoples.

Earlier this year he handed back the Indigenous merit medal given to those who have shown outstanding work with Brazil’s Indigenous people. Possuelo was given the prestigious medal 35 years ago but was outraged to see Bolsonaro given the same award.

Bolsonaro has weakened Funai from top to bottom, he said, making it easier for illegal miners, loggers and hunters to invade Indigenous land.

“You don’t have the right people at the top,” he said. “It’s rare to find people like Bruno. Bruno was efficient in protecting land and Indians, that’s why he was threatened.

“It’s not just the president of Funai, it’s all the way down the chain to the hot areas where things happen. Today, almost everything is in the hands of the criminals.”


Andrew Downie in São Paulo

The GuardianTramp

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