In the Amazon hit by a double murder, poverty fuels violence

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An aerial view of the Brazilian port of Atalaia do Norte – the starting point for adventurers, missionaries, poachers, smugglers and others drawn to the Javari Valley, a vast expanse of jungle in the heart of the Amazon rainforest – Copyright International Trachoma Initiative/ AFP Danny HADDAD

Joshua Howat Berger

A few steps from where British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira left for their last trip, people sit in the hot sun, smashing rocks into pieces with hammers.

It looks like a scene from a movie set in biblical times, but it’s 21st century Brazil, in the city of Atalaia do Norte – the starting point for adventurers, missionaries, poachers, smugglers and others drawn to the Javari Valley, a vast expanse of jungle in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, were returning by boat to Atalaia after a search trip to the area when they were murdered on June 5.

The murky affair has cast an international spotlight on the Javari Valley, home to a larger-than-Austrian indigenous reservation that has the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes on Earth.

The region has been hit by an upsurge in illegal fishing, logging, mining and drug trafficking – crimes that security experts say are fueled by poverty.

In Atalaia, the county seat, Carmen Magalhaes da Roxa explains why she sits on a block of wood in the dirt, smashing stones with a hammer to sell them for construction projects at four reais (less than $1) the bucket.

“There is no other work here. If I don’t break these rocks, I won’t have money to buy gas, pay the electric bill, buy my medicine,” says Roxa, 54, pounding in a print dress floral and flip flops with half a dozen other “quebra-pedras”, or breakers.

“We suffer here – a lot. I smash my fingers, I get flying shards. But what can you do?” asks the grandmother of three, raising her bruised hands in a shrug.

– Lack of options –

Seventy-five percent of the population lives in poverty in Atalaia do Norte, a colorful but ramshackle river town of 20,000 near where Brazil meets Peru and Colombia.

Almost everything in town is produced locally or brought in by boat from Manaus, the Amazonas state capital – an eight-day trip.

There are few ways to escape poverty.

Residents often say they have three job options: farming, fishing, or town hall, the county’s biggest employer.

Analysts say the growing lawlessness has created a fourth: environmental crime, backed by the money of drug gangs that thrive in the lawlessness of a triple frontier deep in the jungle.

“Drug traffickers insert impoverished local populations into their networks, presenting them as an opportunity,” security specialist Aiala Colares of Para State University wrote in a recent article, adding that cartels operating in Amazonia feed on “state abandonment”.

“We cannot address the issue of environmental crimes without addressing poverty,” Brazilian journalist Yan Boechat said on Twitter.

“The economic development of the Amazon region is a failure. What happened to Bruno and Dom is linked to this,” he wrote, alongside a video of Atalaia breakers.

– Violent mix –

Poverty and anarchy turned out to be a violent mixture.

Critics say weak state presence — a longstanding problem across the Amazon — has only worsened since 2019 under President Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration has scaled back enforcement of the environmental law and the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI.

In the Javari Valley, an outbreak of violence followed.

The FUNAI base on the edge of the indigenous reserve was the target of multiple gun attacks in 2019.

In the same year, the FUNAI anti-poaching chief in the region was assassinated in the nearby town of Tabatinga. The crime remains unsolved.

Just across the border, gunmen in speedboats raided a Peruvian police station in January, wounding four officers and brazenly robbing a cache of weapons. The post has not yet reopened.

Marivonea Moreira de Mello, a 45-year-old mother of four who works at the town hall of Atalaia, remembers that ten years ago she slept with the front door open. Now she wouldn’t dare, she said.

“Our young people are becoming addicted to drugs. My own son is one of them. He is 20 years old,” she said.

She was happy when the Army, Navy, Federal Police and global media descended on Atalaia after Phillips and Pereira disappeared.

Now that they are mostly gone, she worries about what will happen next. The local police have only two officers.

“Atalaia do Norte is in a very dangerous situation,” she said.

“There is a lack of police, a lack of security, a lack of everything.”

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