It is December 2018, and a Brazilian pilot, Jeziel Barbosa de Moura, is on a routine flight, steering his single-prop Embraer air-taxi over the vast Amazon rainforest. The pilot has several passengers on board, and nothing indicates imminent danger. But then a cylinder fails – and it triggers a series of events that lead to Barbosa de Moura’s mysterious disappearance.
A critical aircraft malfunction is never welcome, of course. But there are few places more dangerous to have a breakdown than over the Amazon rainforest. With such extensive tree cover, the Amazon offers scant safe places to make an emergency landing. And the rainforest is a wilderness of such daunting vastness that without proper preparation you may never escape – or ever be found.
In fact, the Amazon covers an area of nearly 2.6 million square miles and is the largest expanse of tropical rainforest on Earth. And Barbosa de Moura found himself experiencing technical problems over the state of Pará in northern Brazil. This is close to the border with French Guiana, above a particularly remote tract on the lower Amazon river.
Rich in gold, iron, tin, manganese and bauxite, Pará has long been explored by roaming extractive industries, which come and go with the seasons. And among the state’s derelict outposts is Independência – an old gold mine with its own airstrip. Barbosa de Moura now flew his plane towards it.
The airstrip at Independência had fallen into disrepair, though. Partly consumed by vegetation, it was a highly dangerous place to attempt a landing. But Barbosa de Moura had made his decision. According to the BBC, the pilot said on his radio, “I can’t make anything out any more.” And then he fell silent.
So the disappearance of Barbosa de Moura, his passengers and his Embraer air-taxi, registration RT-RDZ, was evidently caused by a fatal mechanical failure. There was, however, another more scandalous and political dimension to the tragedy. Flaws in Brazil’s aviation system in fact played a prominent role in the accident, sparking heavy criticism.
According to the Aviation Safety Network – which maintains a database of aviation accidents and incidents worldwide – Brazil has experienced the third highest number of fatal accidents globally. Since 1945, in fact, there have been just over 2,700 fatalities in 188 separate accidents.
Adding non-fatal accidents to that tally results in a more detailed picture, though. According to the ASN Safety Database, you see, there have been a total 577 aviation accidents in Brazil since records began. And while some of them involved large aircraft, most of them concerned small or light aircraft of the same or similar type flown by Barbosa de Moura.
Small aircraft, specifically air-taxis, are frequently the only means of transport in the Amazon – a region with few roads. Indigenous people who live in remote areas will often use these planes when they need to journey to, say, big cities to lodge claims with civil authorities. After all, state pension entitlements require claimants to visit government offices annually, in person, as evidence that they are living.
On December 2, 2018, Barbosa de Moura had been flying from the community of Matawaré, a remote indigenous village in the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park. With an area of nearly 15,000 square miles, the park covers an area bigger than Belgium. His intended destination was Laranjal do Jari – a mining town of over 40,000 inhabitants in the neighboring state of Amapá.
The scheduled flight time was one hour and 45 minutes, and it was a familiar route. Barbosa de Moura’s passengers included two different parties of indigenous Amazonians. One group contained a teacher, Pantia Tiriyó, traveling with his wife, Pansina, and their three kids – the youngest of whom was only three years old.
The second party included a pensioner, Sepi Akuriyó, who was traveling with Jesaraya Tiriyó, her son-in-law. Apparently, Akuriyó was the only person left who could speak her indigenous language, and the last known speaker of it in her community of Matawaré. Her disappearance is therefore a grave tragedy for her tribe.
Barbosa de Moura ran into problems around noon and immediately radioed his long-time friend Paulo Tridade. The latter, who is also a pilot, was in the air some 22 minutes away. According to the BBC, Barbosa de Moura said over the stuttering intercom, “Paulo. It looks like I’ve lost a cylinder. There’s oil leaking on the windscreen. I’m going to land at Independência.”
But Tridade knew this was a dangerous, if not deadly move. He understood that the Independência airstrip was no longer in service. He told Barbosa de Moura, “No, you can’t. There’s no longer any landing strip there; it was abandoned 15 years ago. Aim for the river, the Parú, instead – try to land on water.”
However, Barbosa de Moura, perhaps for reasons of urgency, refused to heed his friend Tridade’s advice. Then, after the pilot reaffirmed his decision to head for the abandoned runway, his radio went silent. This prompted Tridade to immediately change course and search for his friend. He too flew straight into trouble, though, hurtling headlong into an enormous storm.
A storm over the Amazon is no little threat to a small airplane, after all. The only way to ensure any visibility in such conditions is to fly beneath it, in fact. So, forced to a low altitude, Tridade progressed slowly. He then arrived at Independência as the storm ended. But gazing down at the dilapidated airstrip, Tridade saw no indication of any other aircraft.
Approximately 48 hours later, the Brazilian Air Force commenced searching the area with Black Hawk helicopters and Hercules transport planes. The officials eventually searched a total of 4,845 square miles and flew a total distance of 12,400 miles in 128 hours – roughly equivalent to flying from São Paulo to Tokyo. But with no sign of the plane after two weeks, the search ended.
But the friends and relatives of the disappeared then launched their own search effort. This began with an eight-day trek from the village of Bona to Independência. Here, the loved ones set up a base camp close to the dilapidated landing strip. And from there, they conducted forays into the surrounding jungle.
Of course, the conditions were challenging; the vegetation was dense and the terrain was far from flat. The searchers therefore spent weeks scouring the surrounding forest, slashing new trails with machetes. But by the end of January 2019, they had depleted their supplies of food, and Tiriyó’s father had fallen ill with malaria. So they were then forced to call the search off.
But the disappearance of RT-RDZ lays bare long-term issues with air traffic control in Brazil. For one thing, the apparent lack of such air traffic control in the Amazon and the seemingly fairly inefficient aviation infrastructure unduly impacts Brazil’s indigenous population. And disturbingly, many pilots – including Barbosa de Moura before his disappearance – allegedly have little choice but to operate unlawfully.
And because landing strips in remote Amazonian communities tend to fall below official safety standards, they go unregistered with the authorities. Pilots consequently can’t legally use them. To meet local transport demands, however, flyers simply submit false flight plans using fake destinations or departure points. Yet fake flight information tends to confuse search-and-rescue operations.
In March 2019 one Brazilian pilot, Paulo Nortes, explained to the BBC exactly how some pilots avoid official scrutiny. He said, “You have to fly quietly, with the transponder sometimes turned off… The flight controllers and the government don’t really know about those flights. They’re not being monitored by any controller.”
“There are a few airstrips that are like rollercoasters,” he added, describing the nerve-racking risks of Amazonian flying. “…And you must be aware all the time of the weather, not to get inside a heavy storm, because it plays with your plane as if it was a paper plane, like a toy.”
And according to Adrian Young, who works for to70, an aviation consultancy based in the Netherlands, the Brazilian system is nothing short of outrageous. He told the BBC, “A regulatory system that requires pilots to falsify flight plans, to lie about basic information is scandalous. It’s unsafe – and in such an isolated region, you can’t just deny people access to travel.”
Some civil society groups in Brazil have also spent years lobbying for change. Speaking to the BBC, Cecília Apalai, an indigenous activist, highlighted the urgency of their plight. She said, “We are very worried, because we are the users of this transport system. The landing strips need to be safer not just for indigenous people themselves, but also for government employees who provide health and education services, who use the airstrips all the time.”
Alaxandre Guimarães, the Federal Prosecutor-General of Amapá, actually successfully litigated against the Civil Aviation Authority (ANAC) in 2013. Specifically, the court ruled that ANAC and several other federal organizations must now repair and enhance degraded airstrips throughout Amazonia. Lobbyists argue, though, that the groups do not so far appear to have taken any concrete action.
“There are 249 landing strips that aren’t regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, and these strips are in indigenous land,” Guimarães told the BBC. “All this is the fault of those state bodies that have not carried out their legal duty to regularize these landing strips.”
Yet ANAC told the BBC that it is currently mapping areas in places that require landing strips. It also reportedly expects to announce its infrastructure strategy imminently. The organization said, “The work aims to facilitate access to services, especially health, for the indigenous population. Discussions are now in a final phase, and plans will be revealed fully as soon as they are approved.”
Civil society groups have, meanwhile, been lobbying the Defence Ministry to launch a ground search for the missing passengers and pilot of RT-RDZ. Such operations are seemingly not without precedent, and an eye-witness sighting of a low-flying plane on the day of the accident arguably bolsters their case. However, the ministry has so far refused to help.
For their part, Barbosa de Moura’s family now feel abandoned by the authorities. Speaking to the BBC, his daughter Flavia Moura wondered if politics played a role. She said, “We’re yelling every day, my brothers and me, begging for any help to continue the search, but no one’s come, no one’s helped. Is it because they are Indians, because they’re ordinary people, that no one has offered to help?”
Moura added that she cannot have closure or even begin to grieve until the plane is recovered. She continued, “I know this is a pain that will never heal. I can’t see him, I can’t bury him, I can’t say goodbye. And I don’t know whether I will see him again one day, or whether I’ll never know what happened.”
Aksuni, Pansina’s brother, had apparently been unable to join the initial search parties at Independência. Based in Macapá, the capital of Amapá – a city situated near the mouth of the Amazon River – he had instead remained in daily radio contact with the groups throughout their efforts. And he told the BBC that he was losing faith that his sister was still alive.
“We grew up together, we’re about the same age, and she lived in the next house to mine,” Aksuni said. “So we were always talking, we were really close. I used to talk to her, play with her… and now maybe I won’t have my sister, I won’t have that close person to be with me.”
Some indigenous groups have echoed Moura’s doubts by suggesting that politics may be influencing the apparently lax federal response to the accident too. Activist Kutanan Waiana, who joined the Independência ground search, told the BBC that he felt that historical institutional racism likely played a part.
“When indigenous people disappear, when they go down in a plane, the government only searches for 14 days, because it’s an Indian who’s vanished… who knows where he or she’s gone?” he said. “For us, this says that in effect this government doesn’t want to know about indigenous people, doesn’t want to know about human lives, human beings.”
Yet the Brazilian government has taken important measures to address historical racism against indigenous peoples. In 1967, for example, it created the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to protect indigenous tribes from colonists and other invaders, demarcate indigenous territories and promote indigenous rights. And on paper, the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil are in many ways progressive and well-articulated.
In practice, however, indigenous peoples seemingly argue that their rights are not necessarily respected. For instance, indigenous peoples can lack the agency to successfully challenge threats to their territories and their traditional ways of life. Mining and energy corporations, along with agribusiness, could therefore stake claims to indigenous lands – with reportedly disastrous results. Ultimately, then, it seems that such companies have a far greater power to lobby government than indigenous activists.
And with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, the Amazon seemingly faces an uncertain future. For instance, one of the president’s first moves after assuming office in January 2019 was to strip FUNAI of its power to assign indigenous lands.
Bolsonaro’s remarks over the years also suggest that he holds allegedly racist views. For example, speaking to the Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense in 1998, Bolsonaro expressed his admiration for the indigenous genocide of North America. He said, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”
Ultimately, though, the disappearance of the plane over the Amazon has the appearance of an unfortunate accident – a simple mechanical failure that led to an unsolvable and intractable tragedy. Upon close examination, however, the incident also appears to be entangled in complex political decision-making that takes place far from the communities impacted. And it’s not at all clear when – or even if – Brazil’s aviation system will brought more in line with what its detractors want.