Fri, Aug 24, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Search continues for evidence of tribal massacre in the Amazon

A paddle and bad recording of a barroom conversation were all investigators had to go on when claims surfaced last year of killings deep in Brazil’s Javari Valley

By Dom Phillips  /  The Guardian, SAO PAULO DE OLIVENCA, Brazil

When not selling breakfast in the sleepy town of Sao Paulo de Olivenca on the western reaches of the Amazon, Algenor Costa fishes and hunts along the Jandiatuba River, as he has done for decades.

Heading days upriver, he has often headed into the Javari Valley, a vast indigenous reserve where such activities are forbidden.

“That’s the town larder,” Costa said. “Everybody enters there to fish and hunt.”

Until last year, the 53-year-old sold his catch and prey to the crews of illegal gold dredgers — known as garimpeiros — who used the town as a support base before heading deep into the reserve, sucking up gold from the river and pumping poisonous mercury into its muddy waters.

However, Costa was last year at the center of an investigation into the alleged massacre of up to 10 tribespeople from an uncontacted group in the reserve.

The case made headlines around the world and forced the Brazilian government — which had already been alerted about the mining activities of garimpeiros — into action.

In late August last year, a preplanned army operation destroyed four dredgers and seized another near the town.

In November, personnel from the Brazilian National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the agency in charge of protecting indigenous interests and their culture, joined a second army operation that blew up 10 more mining barges and headed into the reserve to look for evidence that a massacre had occurred.

A flight over the area found burned maloca longhouses — a common practice by local isolated tribes after a death — but they were unable to find anything conclusive.

Instead, while prosecutors are still to close their investigation, the case has exposed the vulnerability of isolated groups in the Javari Valley, the prejudice indigenous people face in communities around them and the difficulties of such investigations in areas of inaccessible wilderness.

It was the third time the garimpeiros had set up in Sao Paulo de Olivenca, locals said.

Although many were out-of-towners, some locals, including Costa, delivered supplies to them.

The garimpeiros’ barges operated days by boat from the town, deep inside the reserve.

“We fish, hunt and bring what we get here, and on the way back, the garimpeiros [would buy] some things from us,” Costa said.

For isolated tribes, the presence of outsiders nearby is potentially fatal, as they have no immunity from even common diseases like the flu.

Costa and two other men, Manoel Castro and Roque Alves Rocha, were named in an anonymous denunciation received in August by FUNAI that included a badly recorded conversation and a photograph of Costa with a paddle.

The tip-off said the men had boasted of killing up to 10 indigenous people and had stolen the paddle and other artifacts.

Other evidence lent credibility to the denunciation.

Prosecutors in Tabatinga — a city six hours away by boat — opened an investigation and requested arrest warrants for the three men. A judge turned these down and authorized searches of their properties instead.

Interviewed by TV Globo’s national news program Jornal Nacional, the three men denied the accusations that they had been responsible for a massacre.

“It is something I never did,” Rocha said.

Castro said he had not seen the indigenous people, but that he and Costa had found two paddles in a canoe and taken one.

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