Double-Killing In The Amazon: Nature And Natives In Bolsonaro’s Brazil

The suspected double-murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian expert on native Amazonian affairs Bruno Pereira has focused the attention of the English-speaking world once more on the Amazon as a place of duplicity and violence. The pair were last seen on June 5th in their boat on the Itaguaí river, near the entrance of the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, a dense tract of rainforest that borders Peru and Colombia. Phillips, a journalist published by The Guardian and the Washington Post, had sought the help of Pereira in 2019 when writing a book about sustainable development in the Amazon. Pereira had been fired from his position as head of the isolated Indigenous people’s divison of FUNAI (Brazil’s state agency with the responsibility for carrying out policies relating to native peoples). He was held in high regard among the native people he worked with and afforded Philips access to even the most isolated places and communities. The bodies of the two men were found ten days after their disappearance, in no small part thanks to the efforts of native search parties. They were found by an autopsy to have been shot dead by a “firearm with typical hunting ammunition” (Sky News). Brazilian police have arrested fisherman Amarildo da Costa, who they say has confessed to killing the pair, as well as da Costa’s brother, and an additional six others, some of whom are alleged to have aided in covering up the killing and hiding the bodies.

Brazilian president and right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro offered a less-than insightful commentary on the killings, stating only that ‘something wicked’ was done to them (The Guardian). Recent years have seen a rise in illegal drug trafficking and violence in the deepest reaches of the Brazilian Amazon alongside a parallel increase in logging and mining activities that are very much legal, if not incentivised, by the state. Ex-army officer Bolsonaro is particularly militant in his deprecation of environmentalist concerns and the rights of indigenous peoples. Among his most controversial quotes is the statement that “the Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?” (Campo Grande News, 2015).

The ideology of an expanding Brazilian “national territory” is one repopularised by Bolsonaro, but it has its origins in earlier phases of Brazil’s history. Groups of slavers and adventurers known as the Bandeirantes (“flag carriers”) of the colonial period (16th to 18th century) helped to expand Brazil’s borders when they embarked upon expeditions in search of riches or native slaves. Getúlio Vargas’s fascistic Estado Novo regime, lasting from 1937 until 1945, retold the legacy of the colonial Bandeirantes in an attempt to inspire a new wave of interior migration. To garner popular support for a program of economic development called the Marcha para o Oeste (“March to the West”), colonial Bandeirantes, a category of people mostly dedicated to enslaving and exterminating natives, were refashioned by Estado Novo propagandists as pathfinders, scientists and pioneers. The works of writer Cassiano Ricardo likened westward migration in Brazil to that which was undertaken by settlers in America during the nineteenth century. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed America’s western frontier as a place where democracy and the essential national spirit of the United States was continually regenerated. Where migrants travelled west, the essential ‘Brazilianness’ of the land was supposedly reinforced. Even U.S president Theodore Roosevelt was said to have “Bandeirante spirit” for having led an expedition down the Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt”) on the Amazon basin. Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’ has since been widely criticised as these American settlers were not a direct counterpart to Brazil’s Bandeirantes, who, as Sandra Dutra e Silva of The State University of Goiás points out, failed to establish any permanent settlements of their own. The Estado Novo regime distorted the history of Bandeirantes and their native captives in order to further migration into Brazil’s interior, thus expanding the area under state control. Bolsonaro’s preoccupation with the ‘national territory’ is reminiscent of the Estado Novo regime’s desire to expand state borders and reaffirms the principle that Brazil must, to an extent, colonise itself.

Jair Bolsonaro’s disdain for the natives “who do not have money” is also in keeping with his zealous economic outlook. During his election campaign he vowed to expand commercial access to the Amazon. In making the natural reserves of the Amazon rainforest available for corporate mining and agriculture interests, Bolsonaro has weakened the position of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, whose livelihoods are now threatened by legal displacement or evacuation due to the environmental degradation associated with increased economic activity in the region. Extractivism and the exhaustion of natural resources have their place in Bolsonaro’s picture of modernity, but subsistence farming practised by the native (who he likened to a “prehistoric creature”) does not. Bolsonaro has made clear his intention to dismantle the legislative protections afforded to indigenous people under the 1988 Constitution, presenting to Congress a series of proposals which would give corporations further scope to extract minerals, oil and gas and to build hydropower plants on native land. People “who do not have money” and that do not contribute to Brazil’s GDP are a hindrance to the kind of fast-pace economic growth envisioned by Bolsonaro.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of President Bolsonaro’s anti-nativist rhetoric is the fundamental message it conveys – that indigenous people are not entitled to the land they inhabit nor can they attain the identity of a ‘Brazilian’ without ‘integrating’ into mainstream society. Intimately connected to his ideas of indigenous people is Bolsonaro’s attitude toward the Amazon rainforest. Under his leadership, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon reached a twelve year high in 2020. The rhetoric espoused by Bolsonaro has its roots deep in Brazilian political history. An appeal to nationalist migration into the forest and the desire to expand the effective control of the state is a feature of the Estado Novo regime that Bolsonaro has resurrected to serve his idea of Brazil. In casting the indigenous as an uncivilised, uncultured and moneyless people, he justifies enabling corporate interests in their ransacking of the Amazon.

The systemic enslavement and extermination of indigenous populations across centuries largely defines historic Portuguese-indigenous relations. The indigenous literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century sparked debate as to the place of the native within Brazilian culture, culminating in the founding of FUNAI (National Foundation for Indians) in 1910, under which Bruno Pereira led high-profile efforts to stop illegal fishing and gold-prospecting. The school of thought of which Bolsonaro belongs to is that of the military generals he so admires, who ran Brazil from 1964 until 1985. They, like Bolsonaro, viewed natives only as a barrier to expansion and economic growth. Bolsonaro’s presidency threatens FUNAI’s existence, and he has vowed to serve it a “blow to the neck”. The deaths of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira are reminiscent of the assassination of rubber trapper and Union activist Chico Mendes in 1988. Bolsonaro threatens to completely upend the wave of environmental legislation that stemmed from Mendes’s death. The next steps taken by the Brazilian government will have dramatic ramifications for the nature and natives of the world’s most precious ecosystem. The legacy of Dom Phillips and Bruno Periera’s sacrifice ought to be a renewed and sustained international effort to combat the Amazon’s most painful ills.


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