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

Fri, Aug 24, 2018 - Page 9

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.

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.

If the alleged massacre had happened, it was unlikely that this established settlement would still be there, because isolated groups flee danger, he said.

That conclusion was shared by 44-year-old Daniel Mayaruna, an indigenous man from Javari who was also on the expedition.

Daniel saw a community of his “relatives” in good shape, but said the abandoned mining barge just 10km away was profoundly worrying.

“There are a lot of isolated relatives in this region and my concern is that garimpeiros could kill them,” he said.

Adam Mol, a Polish volunteer doctor, shot video footage of the village.

“We didn’t find any indications of a massacre,” Mol said.

Accusations of massacres are not unknown in the Javari Valley.

In August, Pereira, who is responsible for monitoring its isolated groups, led an expedition in the south of the reserve, following reports by an indigenous man of another mass killing.

Mol went with him and took a drone — equipment that FUNAI did not have; the agency has been decimated by budget cuts under the austerity regime of Brazilian President Michel Temer.

As the expedition headed along the Jutai River, around the area where the killing allegedly took place, they came across a small camp on the side of the water that an isolated group had just vacated, leaving an axe, bow, arrows and other artifacts behind.

Then Mol’s drone spotted the main village just a kilometer away, with people, communal thatched buildings and plantations.

They retreated, reasoning that the indigenous group would have moved had they suffered a massacre.

“The drone footage gave us the intel we needed,” Mol said.

Both cases underline just how hard it is to investigate allegations of possible crimes in such remote regions.

In Tabatinga, federal prosecutor Pablo Beltrand said the tip-off of the supposed Jutai River massacre was “not such a reliable report” and presented “contradictions.”

Beltrand has just received FUNAI’s report on the expedition and is analyzing it.

The agency had been reluctant to share sensitive information, such as the location of isolated groups.

That the isolated tribe has stayed in the region is “something to be considered in the investigation,” Beltrand said.

He has yet to conclude his inquiry.

However, he has little to go on — a paddle, a conversation, an anonymous denunciation.

Meanwhile, smaller wooden mining barges are now reportedly being built beside a river in Sao Paulo de Olivenca. The garimpeiros might yet return.