On June 5, 2022, Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira of Brazil and freelance reporter Dom Phillips of Britain went missing while working in a remote part of the Amazon.
Since then, a suspect in the case has confessed to their murders.
But the story hasn't ended there. As journalists and experts take a closer look, the plot behind the story has thickened with politics, Indigenous rights, and organized crime.
Scott Wallace, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, has worked extensively in Brazil's Javari Valley. He shared his perspective -- as someone who knew the victims as well as the alleged perpetrator, with National Geographic:
The increasingly brazen intruders are no longer small-time players with a net or rifle seeking to put a meal on the family table. Members of the Indigenous patrols say that more and more, poaching crews appear to be highly-capitalized ventures, backed by a shadowy network of outside investors with suspected links to the illicit drug trade. Their fishing boats feature high-horsepower motors, and they carry large quantities of fuel, expensive gill nets, ice, and hundreds of kilos of salt to preserve bushmeat and critically endangered pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. In a rare police action, officers in March intercepted fishermen leaving the reserve with two dozen endangered river turtles, 650 pounds of salted bushmeat, and nearly 900 pounds of salted pirarucu.
The evident outlays of cash create both the ability and the imperative for fishermen such as Oliveira to head deeper into the Javari territory, stay there longer, and return with hefty payloads to settle their debts. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Oliveira may have owed a Peruvian financier nicknamed “Colombia” more than $15,000 because a load of his contraband had been intercepted by the Indigenous patrols.
As intruders penetrate into the depths of the Javari, Indigenous leaders and their allies fear the growing likelihood of a conflagration involving the uncontacted nomads roaming the forest. “They’re definitely putting the isolados—the isolated ones—at risk,” says Orlando Possuelo, Sydney’s son, who is based in Atalia do Norte and has been working alongside Pereira in advising the Indigenous patrols for the past two years. Poachers are pillaging the animals the isolated groups depend on for survival. And uncontacted groups remain highly vulnerable to contagious diseases, for which they have little to no immunological defense. Finally, and perhaps most immediately, there’s the very real danger of violence. “These fishermen don’t hesitate to shoot,” Orlando says. “If they’re willing to kill outside the reserve, there’s no doubt the lives of the isolated ones are in danger.”
An uncontacted Indigenous group would have no way to peacefully communicate with interlopers entering their territory. Their likely first response would be to attack, which could provoke a bloodbath when intruders respond to spears or arrows with far more lethal bullets, says Paulo Marubo. “Anyone knows what the results will be between those carrying firearms and those who do not have them.”
The hope of averting that alarming possibility was what led Pereira to risk his life. “The greatest concern that I have is the advance of outsiders—be they for projects authorized by the government or illegal players like loggers, miners, and land-grabbers—into the territories of the isolados,” Pereira told me in a phone call in 2019 after he was ousted from heading the isolated tribes department. “At the same time, you have the crippling of FUNAI and the department to protect the isolated tribes. It’s a very dangerous mix.”
Scott Wallace is a bestselling author, photojournalist and educator who covers the environment and vanishing cultures worldwide. Scott is available to speak to media - simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today.
Scott Wallace Associate Professor of Journalism
Scott Wallace is a bestselling author, photojournalist and educator who covers the environment and vanishing cultures worldwide.