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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

Costa refused to say any more to the channel.

However, in an interview with the Guardian, Costa rejected being on the recording and said that he and Manoel Bida had found the paddle two years earlier in a canoe at a place called Tres Bocas, deep inside the reserve, near footprints an isolated group had left crossing a river.

“We didn’t see them, just their traces. It’s common there,” Costa said.

The supposed massacre had been devised by those who want to force the authorities to act over gold dredging, he said, but did not specify who they might be.

It would be impossible to kill so many light-footed indigenous people and survive, he said, adding that, despite having no evidence, the isolated tribe practices cannibalism.

“If they kill us, they eat us,” Costa said.

Indigenous people around Sao Paulo de Olivenca routinely face discrimination, but prejudice against them has increased since the denunciation, for which they were unjustly blamed, said one local leader, talking anonymously after receiving threats.

Some locals told the Guardian that they feel indigenous people receive too much money in government benefits and believe the reserve is too big for the indigenous population who live there.

FUNAI staff were threatened when they reached the town in November for the joint operation with army and environment agency officials, a federal prosecutor said.

Three months had passed since the original tip-off, a delay criticized by Sydney Possuelo, a former FUNAI president who was instrumental in gaining protected status for the Javari Valley.

As they headed upriver, soldiers blew up 10 dredgers. FUNAI officials quizzed crews and left the soldiers working to reopen one of the agency’s bases on the river, which had been closed in 2012.

This was important to deter garimpeiros from entering the area, said Beto Marubo, an indigenous leader working to raise international attention on threats to the valley’s 16 isolated tribes.

“Without these bases, the isolated Indians who roam this territory become vulnerable,” he said.

The FUNAI group carried on up the river. Before reaching Tres Bocas, they had found an abandoned gold dredger.

At the site of the alleged massacre, they found no sign of the killings — although what evidence would have remained after three months is unclear.

No police took part in the expedition.

It was a difficult trip involving arduous travel through remote and inhospitable terrain, said Bruno Pereira, the FUNAI isolated indigenous peoples specialist who led a team that included Jair Candor, one of the agency’s most experienced isolated authorities who was featured in the award-winning documentary Piripkura.

Since 1987, FUNAI has avoided contact with isolated tribes — who have attacked and killed employees in the past and have been decimated by viruses passed on by outsiders.

Trekking inland in search of signs that the tribe was healthy, they came across a plantation of fruit and vegetables, then a settlement. Due to the seriousness of the denunciation, they decided to enter and found fires still smoldering, temporary thatched-roof shelters called tapiri, slings for blowpipes, clay pots, arrowheads, tapir bones and wild boar and alligator that had been cooked and eaten, as well as a body-length ceremonial mask.

They stayed for six minutes.

“It was very tense. [It felt] like an eternity,” Pereira said.

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