After Bruno Pereira’s murder, widow Beatriz Matos strives for Indigenous rights

After Bruno Pereira’s murder, widow Beatriz Matos strives for Indigenous rights

  • In an interview with Mongabay, anthropologist Beatriz Matos, widow of Indigenous specialist Bruno Pereira, tells of the duties she assumed on Feb. 14 as head of the Department of Territorial Protection and of Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples inside the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Matos tells of her recent return to the Javari Valley, where she and Pereira met, and of the challenges in reverting the destruction of and negligence toward Indigenous rights in the recent past.
  • Matos also explains how mapping of isolated peoples in Brazil works and how the department has been structuring itself to carry out this work together with Funai, the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation.
  • According to Matos, the current priority is to “work to guarantee safety and protection for Indigenous peoples and their territories.”

“One of the most important days of my life,” are the words that anthropologist Beatriz Matos uses to describe her February visit to the Javari Valley on her first project as head of the Department of Territorial Protection and of Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples inside the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples..

Just eight months after the murder of her partner, Indigenous specialist Bruno Pereira, together with journalist Dom Phillips, she returned to the place with Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara to make this administration’s position very clear: The government will pay close attention to the local situation and work to guarantee safety and protection for Indigenous peoples and their territories.

In an exclusive interview with Mongabay, Matos tells of the responsibilities she has at her job, speaks to the situation of isolated and recently contacted peoples in Brazil and shares memories of her partnership — both personal and professional — with Pereira.

Beatriz Matos in Lobo, a village belonging to the Matsés people in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, Amazonas, in 2010. Image courtesy of Beatriz Matos.

Mongabay: When was your first visit to the Javari Valley and what impact has this place had on your life?

Beatriz Matos: The first time I actually set foot inside the Indigenous territory was in 2004. At the time, I was working at the CTI [Center for Indigenous Work], which was organizing teacher training courses. I took one of the courses together with people from the Mati and Marubo groups. That was when I started working with the Indigenous schools inside their villages. I was there often, either living or visiting once a year or every two years. Later on, I got my master’s degree from the Rio de Janeiro National Museum, and my field research was in Javari as well, with the Matsés people. I also did my Ph.D. there.

There were periods when I actually took up residence in the valley. Bruno and I have a house there, on the road running between Benjamin Constant and Atalaia do Norte. I haven’t been to that house in a long time.

Mongabay: On Feb. 27, you returned to the Javari Valley for the first time since Pereira and Phillips were murdered. This time you went as the head of the Department for Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples. What was the visit like?

Beatriz Matos: It was very important from a professional standpoint because Minister Guajajara’s idea was for us to make our position very clear: that the government will have a presence now, that we will be closely monitoring the situation in the Javari Valley. That there is concern over that place, together with other Indigenous territories that have found themselves in very vulnerable situations involving crime and illegalities in their surrounding regions that pose threats to Indigenous peoples, even inside their own territories.

It was very symbolic because that trip was my very first day of effective work inside the ministry.

On a personal level, it was also very emotional because I have worked there for many years. I have many friends in Javari, people who have been my friends for many years and whom I hadn’t seen since Bruno’s death. They wanted to see me, to be able to put their arms around me and I to put my arms around them. They’re people who we had known before, or who we met together there.

It was also incredible to be in the Javari Valley with the Indigenous minister, as the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. This symbolized a new era and many great hopes. And of course I have many memories there — it’s where I met Bruno — so it was strong in all aspects. One of the most important days of my life.

Beatriz Matos with Sonia Guajajara, minister of Indigenous peoples, and Alessandra Sampaio, Dom Phillips’ wife, during their visit to the Javari Valley in February with a governmental committee organized by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. Image courtesy of Leonardo Otero/MPI.

Mongabay: Could you tell us a little about the role of the Department for Territorial Protection and Isolated or Recently Contacted Peoples, and what its priority agenda is right now?

Beatriz Matos: Our structure is aimed at taking care of these two agendas: to protect Indigenous territories and to protect policy for isolated and recently contacted peoples.

It’s April, and we’ve been working for two months. Right now we are very focused on the initiatives to remove intruders from Indigenous territories. We have also been accompanying the return of policies that were taken down during the last administration, like the work of Funai [the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation], which has been carrying out diagnoses of the protection posts and employee jobs — to understand how this is all working inside the territories right now.

The spotlight has been on the Yanomami Indigenous Territory — that’s a complex operation that needs to be carried through until it is finished. There will still be much work to do even after all the invaders are gone. So we have to accompany closely, together with Funai, the work with the Indigenous people, keeping an eye on the situation inside their communities.

It feels like we’re gluing together pieces, looking at ruins — what was left after that will have to be rebuilt. What’s fundamental for us right now is to guarantee security inside the territories because things are really volatile there. The previous administration’s negligence left them vulnerable to invasion, and certain regions were overtaken by outsiders. There is also drug trafficking involved in some places, so much care must be taken to consult them.

We are beginning to put together plans for consulting the affected populations, to speak with them and be able to understand the priorities of each territory. This is very important.

Mongabay: Could you explain to us how the mapping of isolated and recently contacted peoples is done?

Beatriz Matos: Brazil established a no-contact policy at the end of the 1980s, which stipulates that once the presence of a group is confirmed, those people are monitored via land expeditions and satellite to find out which area they occupy inside the territory, where they go. …

These studies are carried out to determine where protection needs to be provided. Then, a use restriction ordinance is put into effect that determines the range of territory in which outsiders are prohibited from entering unless they work at the Indigenist agency to carry out monitoring.

We no longer believe in opening contact with these populations. We do the work through studies and a methodology developed over time by Funai and the people who work in that specific part of the agency. Once the territory is indirectly defined, its use can then be restricted for future demarcation.

Beatriz Matos together with Matsés people in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in Amazonas in 2010. Image courtesy of Beatriz Matos.

Mongabay: Who are isolated peoples and recently contacted peoples?

Beatriz Matos: It’s important to state, first of all, that these are administrative categories. To say a people is isolated or recently contacted doesn’t refer to their condition, but rather with the way in which the government relates to them. It means the governmental policy for those groups falls within these administrative categories.

Isolated peoples are those who refuse to have a relationship with the Brazilian government, not just with Brazilian society in general. The government regards them as people whose decision to not maintain a constant relationship with us will be respected. They demonstrate this in many ways: Sometimes they build coverings in the forest, sometimes they lay out what we call caltrops, which are spiny plants that form a barrier to keep people from coming close, or they just plain run away. When non-Indigenous people come nearby, groups that are considered isolated move away to a different place. They express a desire not to have contact, and the agency respects their decision, as interpreted by these acts of refusal.

Recently contacted groups are those who have begun having a constant relationship with the government or with non-Indigenous people, and also with state agencies. They receive services from SESAI [the Indigenous Health Department] and Funai, but a series of specific policies are still considered for these people so as to respect the autonomy they ask for, according to their desires. In practical terms, for instance, you have to discuss with them how assistance will be offered. Let’s assume they are a people who have no relationship with the food we eat — this means you won’t show up there with a bunch of Brazilian food rations. It’s a way for the state to relate in a special way with groups that are defining the way they will relate to the state itself and with non-Indigenous people.

Mongabay: In 2022, we saw stories in the press about the death of the “Índio do buraco” (Man of the Hole) the last survivor of the Tanaru ethnicity, who lived in isolation, alone. What can we take away from this story, and what could have been done to keep this ethnicity from disappearing?

Beatriz Matos: What we saw last year was the end of a people. We witnessed yet another genocide happening right in front of us. Today, we are seeing another that we are trying to fix and which got public attention — that of the Yanomami.

What could have been done to prevent it? Something needed to have been done in the 1970s when his people were exterminated during an expansion phase. It could have been done through land use restrictions … through monitoring, through patrolling, having people in there, the Federal Police. Today we have the National Force, anyway … there have to be task forces to keep people with the wrong intentions from entering the territories and promoting genocide.

The death of a Last Man, the last survivor of a people, is something that should cause everyone on the planet to stop and think somehow. This is why we have the goal of making that place into a memorial site: so that genocide won’t be forgotten and won’t be repeated. Something must be done in memory of the Tanaru people.

An isolated Indigenous village in Acre. Image courtesy of Gleilson Miranda/Acre state government.

Mongabay: How has the creation of the Department of Territorial Protection and of Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples changed the way you work with these people?

Beatriz Matos: What really changed things was the creation of the ministry. The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has placed Indigenous issues — and therein the question of isolated and recently contacted peoples — at the center of the nation’s decision-making forums. If the ministries hold a meeting, there will be an Indigenous minister at the table. Until now, the Indigenous agenda was addressed inside the Ministry of Justice, which is an umbrella with millions of institutions to care for beneath it. Funai was just one more institution. Today, the agenda has a higher-level presence and carries more weight within a decision-making center of power, as it should.

This issue is not a subsidiary one, not a small issue. It’s a central issue in Brazil, like racial equality is central. This is completely transforming the space held by the Indigenous agenda and by Indigenous peoples in our national history. We are structuring the ministry to really manifest this change. The space has been created; now we need to actually make it happen. This is what the minister and the secretaries — most of whom are Indigenous women, people who have been fighting for years, who have histories within their territories —are committed to making happen.

Mongabay: What does assuming this position represent to you in terms of your history with Bruno?

Beatriz Matos: It’s very strong, because if he were still alive, he could very well have been given this job. I feel like I’m carrying on his work because we were partners, we worked together. We met each other there in Javari. When our children were born, I had two boys, one right after the other. It was a partnership. He would do his fieldwork and I’d stay home with the kids. When he came back, we would talk about what he’d gone through there and I would share the experiences I’d had in my fieldwork before.

We were already discussing my return to work, how we would divide the responsibilities, because the boys were bigger, weren’t waking up all night and weren’t nursing anymore. We could even have taken them with us because we have a house there. Our dream was to take the boys to Javari. They both have Indigenous names from that region. Our idea was to move there to that house and stay, use it as a base for our fieldwork, to visit the villages, each of us back at our work but be there for our vacations, you know; this was our life plan. It was interrupted, but it’s a way of him not dying, right? To carry on. I’m alone, but I’m still with him and with our children.

There are also many people by my side, the ones he surrounded himself with, people who respected him and with whom he had formed strong partnerships from surviving in the rainforest, fighting the same battle. I feel well-accompanied and that this is our story, our work. It’s work that has to be done, so it’s also a great joy to have the opportunity of this ministry helping us to do things we always wanted to be able to do. The spirit of the thing is sort of like that.

I believe that the Indigenous people working together with us feel the same way. We fought to get this space, and now we will make the fight worthwhile. We will do what we want. This is the vibe that’s very present inside the ministry. … It’s really beautiful. There is much work to be done, there are many challenges, of course. We still don’t have our own budget, we’re creating our structure — we have all these things to work out. We are a new ministry, but there are many hands at work and much willpower. And many people who know how to fight for what they want. These people are warriors, I’m not kidding.

Banner image: Beatriz Matos on the Javari River in Brazil’s northern state of Amazonas in 2014. Image courtesy of Beatriz Matos.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Apr. 17, 2023.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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