It was a hunting shotgun like to the one used to murder Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira – and it was pointing straight at Julia Kanamari’s chest.
“You’ll be next,” she remembers the bleary-eyed gunman snarling after being caught smuggling a boatload of illegally poached river turtles out of the Javari Valley Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon.
The Indigenous leader, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had confronted the man one November morning after spotting him and two accomplices on the Itaquaí river – the same waterway where the British journalist and Brazilian Indigenous expert were shot dead last June.
“I was defending our territory. I didn’t care what might happen,” said Kanamari, who asked for her real name not to be used. “I told him I didn’t fear being killed.”
Yet six months after the two men were killed, the risk of being murdered for challenging the environmental outlaws plundering the rivers and rainforests of the Javari Valley remains all too real.
The disappearance of Phillips and Pereira sparked international outrage and exposed the environmental catastrophe unfolding under president Jair Bolsonaro’s forest-wrecking administration.
After days of delay, authorities sent security forces to find the men and catch their killers. Their bodies were recovered after a 10-day hunt led by Indigenous searchers. Three suspected murderers are due in court next month for a preliminary hearing.
But activists say security forces have now largely withdrawn, leaving Indigenous activists dangerously exposed to the illegal fishing and mining mafias who target their ancestral lands with the suspected backing of shadowy drug trafficking networks that dominate the border region between Brazil, Colombia and Peru.
“There was a moment of calm [after the murders], when the press were here. But then everything just carried on as before – or perhaps even worse,” said Kanamari.
Eliesio Marubo, another Javari leader who was friends with Pereira, said he had hoped the murders might wake authorities up to the largely hidden crisis unfolding in a remote region that is home to the world’s largest concentration of isolated peoples. “Unfortunately, I was wrong.”
Marubo, a 42-year-old activist and lawyer, fled the Javari in mid-June, hours after the bodies of the two men were found in the jungle. “I didn’t want to stick around to get murdered too ... [so] I left everything behind,” he said.
Six months later Marubo has been unable to return to his home in Tabatinga, the border town near to where the murders took place.
“I feel increasingly worried. We’ve not seen any improvement and, in truth, things have really gone downhill. Anyone with a connection to the Javari Valley is at risk,” Marubo said, noting how 10 people were shot in Tabatinga during one week in September.
“It’s bedlam,” he said of a region rife with drug smuggling as well as environmental crime. “It’s madness.”
Amazon activists voice cautious optimism that Brazil’s incoming president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who takes office on January 1st, might bring some kind of relief for Indigenous territories such as the Javari.
The leftist veteran has vowed to create a ministry for native people, rebuild the Indigenous and environmental agencies gutted under Bolsonaro, and eradicate illegal mining and deforestation.
The politician tipped to become Lula’s environment minister, Marina Silva, recently told the Guardian Brazil’s new government would seek to honour the memory of the rainforest martyrs such as Phillips and Pereira by taking action to protect the Amazon.
“A little glimmer of hope has appeared at the end of the tunnel and that hope is Lula,” said Gleissimar Castelo Branco, a social activist from the region where the Guardian journalist and his Brazilian guide were murdered.
Fábio Ribeiro, the co-ordinator of Opi, the advocacy group Pereira helped found to defend isolated Indigenous communities, urged Lula to launch a full-on “federal intervention” in the Javari involving the military, police and the Indigenous agency Funai.
Ribeiro said Funai had been so severely weakened under Bolsonaro that each of the agents responsible for monitoring isolated Indigenous communities was responsible for keeping an eye on 700,000 hectares of land.
“It’s ridiculous,” Ribeiro said, also calling for the empowerment of Indigenous surveillance teams such as the group Phillips was reporting on when he was killed.
Marubo believed a two-year deployment of security forces was essential to control the violence. “Right at the start of his administration, Lula’s going to have to take several decisions with regards to people’s safety in this region,” said the activist who worked with Pereira at the Indigenous NGO Univaja.
“He’s going to have to decide whether things stay as they are – with the complete absence and ineffectiveness of the state – or if he takes emergency action.”
Marubo also urged police to do more to catch the masterminds of the murder of Phillips and Pereira, and not just the gunmen who shot them.
“They’re nobodies in the world of crime,” he said of the three suspects currently behind bars accused of aggravated homicide. “The big guys are still out there.”
In late November, police reportedly detained the turtle smuggler suspected of threatening the Kanamari leader, although he is subsequently thought to have been released. He was named as Romário da Silva Oliveira and is the cousin of de Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, the man accused of shooting Phillips and Pereira.
“This gang continues to operate and threaten people with total freedom,” said Ribeiro, an anthropologist who spent more than a decade working at Funai.
Six months after a crime that shocked the world, such lawlessness and impunity means the Indigenous activists of the Javari remain in the firing line: vulnerable, forgotten, yet determined to continue their fight against those pillaging their lands.
“Once again they are alone,” Castelo Branco said. – Guardian