Indigenous groups roam forests and rivers in search of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira

Warm rain lashed the speedboat as it headed south to where Binin Matis’ mentor had disappeared without a trace.

“He was like a father to me,” the 31-year-old indigenous leader said as his boat advanced toward the U-shaped bend where Bruno Pereira was last seen. “He’s gone now, I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

Pereira, a famous Brazilian indigenous expert, disappeared last Sunday on his return from an informational trip to the depths of the Amazon with British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor Dom Phillips.

Dom Phillips in Brazil on November 14, 2019. Photo: João Laet / AFP / Getty Images

Four days later, indigenous youth like Matis, whom Pereira was training to use technology to protect his village’s ancestral lands from environmental criminals, were leading the search.

“I wish we could find them, or at least some sign that might give us hope,” Matis said Thursday afternoon as he traveled downstream to a stretch flanked by the Itaquai River jungle where the operation is centered.

As he explored the brown waters, Matis said he was on the lookout for even the slightest hint that Pereira and Phillips might have been there: a backpack or a T-shirt, a can of oil, a life jacket, or perhaps the seat of a ship.

However, there was nothing but the trunk of an occasional submerged tree seen in the river meandering toward the Javari Indigenous Reserve, whose inhabitants Phillips was in the region to interview.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the search team’s pulse had accelerated as they saw vultures circling over the canopy of the rainforest. But as they made their way to the jungle, their hopes were dashed. “He was just a dead monkey and the vultures were eating him,” Matis said, promising to continue the hunt despite the lack of progress.

Further along the murky river, a group of boats had been moored on its western shore. On board the eldest was the man who helped coordinate the search and rescue mission: a 37-year-old indigenous specialist named Orlando Possuelo.

With the support of heavily armed members of the military police, two dozen indigenous people have spent this week roaming the region’s forests and rivers in search of the missing couple, under the command of Possuelo.

Orlando Possuelo in the Javari Valley on June 9, 2022. Photo: João Laet / AFP / Getty Images

“We’ve been here since Monday,” said Indigenist, son of legendary Indian explorer and advocate Sydney Possuelo. “This is the region where it was last seen.”

Possuelo, a close friend of Pereira’s, recalled how exactly a week earlier he had helped the two missing men load their bags into a boat as they embarked on their three-day voyage across the Itaquai River.

When they could not return to their starting point, the isolated river town of Atalaia do Norte, at the agreed time on Sunday morning, Possuelo marched downstream to find them, fearing they might have had an accident.

“My first thought was that his engine had broken down … he was looking for a broken ship, or one that had run out of gas, something like that.”

map of the area nearby

As the hours and days passed, the darkest thoughts began to spin. When Possuelo arrived home, after three unsuccessful hours dragging the river, he began to “fear that something very bad had happened.”

Carol Santana, a legal adviser to the Javari Indigenous Association, said activists were now firmly focused on the theory that the couple had been victims of “enforced disappearances.”

“We are not necessarily saying that they are no longer alive,” said Santana, a lawyer who also represents Pereira’s wife, Beatriz de Almeida Matos.

But few involved in the rescue mission now believe the disappearances were the result of an innocent accident. Many suspect that the men were the target of illegal hunting and fishing gangs that besiege the region’s indigenous lands in search of gold and animals such as pirarucu fish and turtles from the tracajá river.

On Friday afternoon, a judge ordered that a suspect arrested on Tuesday be detained for another 30 days while police investigate whether he is involved. Amarildo da Costa, a fisherman known locally as “Pelado”, was charged with illegal possession of restricted ammunition.

The far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro, under which the deforestation of the Amazon has soared, seems to be gradually responding to a cacophony of criticism, in Brazil and around the world, for its slow response.

In a letter to Bolsonaro this week, the editors of some of the world’s leading media organizations, such as The Guardian, the Washington Post, the NPR and the New York Times, denounced the government’s search operation with ” minimum resources “and slow start.

On Thursday, as indigenous searchers from four ethnic groups – the Matis, the Marubo, the Kanamari and the Mayoruna – continued their search, gray navy boats were seen patrolling the river. A military helicopter took off over their heads as white storks hid on the banks of the river.

“I have 300 men in the area, two planes, 20 boats. We have already spent more than R $ 0.5 million (about £ 83,000). Just to show that Brazil is taking action, don’t be fooled,” he said. Justice Minister Anderson Torres told reporters.

But critics consider these efforts too little, too late. And indigenous activists, who have been searching for Phillips and Pereira for a few hours after their disappearance, expressed displeasure at Bolsonaro’s suggestion that the couple should blame themselves for embarking on a such an “adventure” is not recommended.

“They went on an adventure; we’re sorry if the worst happened,” Bolsonaro said Thursday before meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Summit of the Americas.

“The one who has an adventure is the president who wastes public money on jet skis and motorbikes, when that money could be spent on health care,” said indigenous lawyer Eliesio Marubo, recalling how nearly 670,000 Brazilians have died. due to Covid, a Bolsonaro disease has been minimized.

When the coronavirus catastrophe devastated Brazil, Phillips also reported another calamity that has accelerated since the 2018 Bolsonaro election: the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest. Phillips ’trip to the Javari region was one of the last reports he had planned for a book he was writing about the environmental crisis and possible solutions.

Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were filmed on the Amazon expedition in 2018: video

“It was crazy for me to finish the book so we could start working on other things together,” said João Laet, a Brazilian photographer with whom Phillips has reported extensively on the environmental emergency unfolding in the Amazon.

As she walked her friend’s last steps to the place where the missing men were last seen, Laet spoke of the “charm” they shared with the original inhabitants of Brazil’s rainforests and Phillips’ belief. that indigenous communities needed the empowerment of people like Pereira so that they could repel the growing assault on their lands. “Dom was absolutely convinced of that.”

Laet insisted that she had not lost hope that Phillips would return to finish her book. “I have great faith,” the photographer said.

But when the sun set over the jungle there was no sign of progress. “We’re doing our best,” said a rain-soaked Matis searcher as he returned to the floating search base in Possuelo, near the village of Cachoeira, accompanied by five police guards with rifles. “But we didn’t find a single clue.”

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