Twigs clawed at the truck’s wing mirrors as the activists raced through the backlands of the Amazon on a mission their fallen comrade had been planning until the day of his murder.
“When you lose someone who has an ideal, a cause, it only strengthens that struggle,” said Carlos Travassos, the rugged Indigenous specialist piloting one of five pickup trucks in a convoy sweeping eastwards under the cover of night.
Bringing up the rear was a black police vehicle carrying special forces commandos tasked with getting the men to their destination alive.
Travassos was a friend and colleague of Bruno Pereira, the celebrated Brazilian indigenista killed in the Javari Valley with the British journalist Dom Phillips while trying to highlight the threats facing Brazil’s Indigenous peoples.
Before those murders, which have further exposed the environmental catastrophe unfolding under President Jair Bolsonaro, Pereira had been preparing for his next rainforest expedition.
His idea was to lead a delegation of Indigenous activists from the Javari 2,500km across the Amazon to learn from a group of veteran rainforest defenders called the Guardiões da Floresta (Forest Guardians).
“He’d already bought his plane ticket. He was excited,” said Travassos, a former official at Brazil’s Indigenous agency, Funai, who works with the Guardians in Maranhão state’s Araribóia Indigenous territory.
Pereira’s assassination threw the exchange – which he intended to be the first of many – into doubt. But if Pereira’s killers hoped his elimination would thwart efforts to protect the Amazon and its original inhabitants, the Javari activists were determined to show they had failed.
One sweltering afternoon in July, six emissaries from the Javari association Univaja stepped off a plane in the city of Imperatriz and began travelling overland to the Araribóia, home to 17,000 members of the Guajajara people as well as several dozen uncontacted hunter-gatherers from the Awá Guajá tribe.
“We are sad, but we are here,” said Binin Matis, a Matis Indigenous leader from the Javari, whose people helped spearhead the 10-day hunt for Pereira and Phillips along the River Itaquaí.
Matis, who was one of Pereira’s proteges, was accompanied by representatives of three other groups – the Marubo, Kanamari and Mayoruna – who had also played important roles in the search.
Travassos said it was critical Indigenous defenders were not cowed by the murders. “Bruno had an objective. The Indigenous have an objective. And I have the same objective. We mourn their loss … but the objective remains the same.”
In Pereira’s absence, it fell to Orlando Possuelo – another member of the new generation of indigenistas – to lead the Javari activists from their base in Amazonas state to the Guajajara territory.
“Bruno was a great warrior and we will keep his legacy going. We won’t let our mate’s memory down,” Possuelo promised before they set off from a rendezvous point at Funai’s derelict headquarters in Imperatriz.
Eight hours later, at just after midnight, the motorcade screeched to a halt to avoid hitting an Indigenous man – seemingly dead but actually inebriated and asleep – who had collapsed in the middle of the road bordering the Guajajara reserve.
“Welcome to the Araribóia,” Travassos grimaced as the drunk was hauled into the scrub and the activists pressed on into Indigenous lands.
Alcoholism is not the only curse the decades-long advance of non-Indigenous outsiders has inflicted on the Araribóia. Illegal loggers have obliterated the region’s forests since the 1980s, stripping them of valuable hardwoods.
Today, the Araribóia is an island of forest surrounded by an ocean of cattle ranches and soy plantations – a reality that shocked the Javari activists as they arrived from their largely preserved corner of the western Amazon.
“There are no trees … all you see is this wasteland – field after field after field,” gasped Cristóvão Negreiros, an Indigenous defender who was with police when they found Pereira and Phillips’s bodies in a shallow jungle grave.
Binin Matis showed photos of the destruction he had taken from the plane. “If we don’t do something this is what our future will look like,” he warned.
The next morning, the visitors clambered from their hammocks in one of the Araribóia’s largest villages, Zutiwa, and gathered in a palm-roofed hut to exchange hugs with their hosts.
“We consider you siblings because we share the same struggle,” said Pedro dos Santos Uiriri, a Forest Guardians commander wearing a peccary tooth necklace.
Uiriri wept as he embraced his guests. “Why am I crying? It’s because I feel we are one and the same person,” the 55-year-old said to applause.
Possuelo, 38, told the Guajajara his team had come to share and obtain knowledge that might help both groups survive: “You’re fighting here. We are fighting there. Now we’re all fighting together.”
For the next four days the participants swapped stories about life in two radically different corners of Brazil’s Amazon.
They spoke of the threat of Bolsonaro, whose presidency has unleashed a frenzy of Amazon deforestation, with an area 20 times the size of London razed. “It’s as if the Indigenous didn’t exist for him,” Uiriri fumed.
They offered tips, in a medley of Portuguese and the Guajajara language Tenetehára, on the hi-tech surveillance methods they used to pursue poachers and loggers, such as thermal imaging drone cameras, GPS trackers and telephone apps.
They attended lectures on how to avoid passing potentially fatal infections on to the isolated tribespeople living deep in their territories.
“The key thing is to do absolutely everything to avoid making contact. But if you do run into them … put on face masks, wash your hands and avoid getting too close,” said Lucas Albertoni, an Indigenous health specialist who planned the assembly with Travassos and Pereira.
Albertoni said he was still coming to terms with Pereira’s murder. “He was the real deal: a guy who loved the cause and gave everything for the cause – including his life,” the 34-year-old doctor said of his friend, whom he accompanied on two major Javari expeditions to contact isolated members of the Korubo people.
Albertoni said Pereira had understood the risks of activism in a region awash with drug traffickers and poachers. “The truth is everyone who works in the Javari Valley knows this could happen. It’s an extremely complex and dangerous place. But this doesn’t stop us doing our work – and it never will,” insisted Albertoni, whose T-shirt carried the phrase “Bruno is here”.
The Guardians voiced similar grit as they prepared to launch their latest clampdown on environmental criminals, with their Javari visitors in tow.
“They think that by murdering these people they’ll silence and scare off others – but it has the opposite effect. The more they kill, the more we’ll go after them,” said Laércio Souza Silva, who was with Paulo Paulino Guajajara when he was murdered but managed to escape. Showing off his bullet scars, Silva said the attack had strengthened his resolve to defend lands his ancestors have inhabited since pre-Columbian times: “My fear evaporated.”
Early the next morning the Guardians painted their faces black and red and set out in a 10-car convoy to raid two villages where they suspected loggers were at work.
“We won’t be greeted with flowers,” Antônio Marcos de Oliveira, the retired policeman who trains the group, warned during a briefing beneath a towering bacuri tree.
“It’ll be with chilli and bile,” joked Olímpio Iwyramu Guajajara, a top Forest Guardians leader wearing camouflage gear and hard-knuckled tactical gloves.
In fact, the patrol teams received a pleasant surprise as they reached their first target. There was no sign of loggers – something Travassos thought suggested their environmental crusade was working.
The Guardians moved on to a neighbouring hamlet and waded waist-deep into a snake-infested river after a tip-off from locals. There, stashed beneath a cloak of branches and leaves, they found a tractor that was used to haul trees from the forest.
“This is a cancer within our territory,” Olímpio said, grinning from ear to ear as his team set fire to their find.
As apricot-coloured flames consumed the vehicle, the Guardians marched onward into the woodlands, brandishing hunting rifles and bows and arrows. An advance party, sent ahead on trail bikes to search for trespassers, found a truck belonging to the same gang.
“It’s daylight robbery,” Olímpio scowled, explaining how loggers paid Indigenous collaborators 100 reais (£16) for a cargo of wood that would be sold for up to 50,000 (£8,100). “We won’t allow it to continue.”
As the second vehicle was torched, the Javari activists caught their breath on a nearby jungle footpath crawling with giant tucandeira ants notorious for their excruciating sting. As they swatted away the insects, Possuelo celebrated the day’s triumph and pondered how only a few weeks earlier his group had been knocked sideways by the murders of Pereira and Phillips.
“We kept going, didn’t we? We made it here against all the odds,” Possuelo said, as they prepared to hike homewards, exhausted but galvanized. “I hope they would be proud of us.”