The novel coronavirus outbreak has intensified a decadeslong battle between indigenous tribes and evangelical Christian missionaries in the most remote regions of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, as tribes warning of the virus’s potential to cause their “genocide” have pushed to ban controversial religious groups from entering their lands.
On Thursday, a Brazilian judge granted the tribes’ wishes, barring missionaries from entering the Javari Valley, a remote region along Brazil’s border with Peru that is home to numerous indigenous tribes and at least 16 groups of isolated peoples ― those who have no known contact with outside communities.
The ruling specifically named three missionaries, as well as New Tribes Mission of Brazil, a 67-year-old fundamentalist Christian organization that is affiliated with a larger evangelical missionary group in the United States. New Tribes also has deep ties to the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who in February tapped Ricardo Lopes Dias, a former New Tribes missionary, to head the agency that is supposed to protect Brazil’s isolated peoples.
Tribal groups in the Javari Valley and across Brazil have long opposed encroachments from missionaries. Their concerns about New Tribes intensified in the early months of 2020, The Guardian reported, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak and the group’s recent purchase of a helicopter it said would help it reach tribes in corners of the valley it hasn’t previously accessed. The organization bought the chopper after raising more than $2 million alongside Ethnos360, a U.S.-based missionary group that was until recently known as New Tribes Mission, and of which New Tribes Mission of Brazil is an affiliate.
UNIVAJA, a group of indigenous tribes from across the Javari Valley region, sought the injunction after the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported that missionaries from New Tribes Mission of Brazil had continued to fly the helicopter on missions across the valley in late March, in trips the newspaper said may have occurred in violation of government aviation regulations and restrictions on contact with indigenous tribes during the pandemic.
New Tribes Mission of Brazil denies that the flights have continued, and said in a statement to HuffPost that it ordered missionaries to leave indigenous lands in March. But the organization’s history in Brazil has sown deep mistrust among indigenous leaders there, who argue that the potential dangers missionaries pose to tribal groups during the pandemic should force the world to understand their opposition to religious intrusion even in normal times.
“We have long denounced these religious organizations for violating Brazilian laws, disrespecting our internal relationships, ways of life and forms of thinking about the world,” UNIVAJA said in a statement after the ruling. “Now these groups physically expose us to a lethal virus that is ravaging humanity. … We are survivors of previous genocidal plagues. We will continue denouncing the unwelcome missionaries, who harm us and our homeland.”
Brazil now has more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, although the actual number is likely far higher. The virus has reached the Amazon ― in Manaus, the forest region’s largest city, hospitals are already near their capacity ― and cases among indigenous tribes have tripled in the last week. If it continues to spread into remote regions like the Javari Valley and other areas with large indigenous populations, it could be disastrous for communities that are already neglected by the Brazilian government.
“If the coronavirus goes to indigenous lands, it will be a tragedy because we have no protected area, no proper investment in health and equipment to protect the indigenous,” said Joenia Wapichana, who became the first indigenous woman ever elected to Brazil’s Congress in 2018.
The dispute is not just about a helicopter and a missionary organization. It’s also about Bolsonaro’s ongoing evisceration of Brazil’s existing infrastructure to protect its indigenous tribes and isolated peoples, and the deep fears many indigenous tribes have of both missionary groups and the current government ― two perceived enemies that became even more closely linked with Lopes Dias’ appointment on the eve of Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m very, very worried,” said Beatriz de Almeida Matos, an anthropologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Para who has studied indigenous cultures in the Javari Valley. “We know from history that this kind of contact is very, very dangerous.”
“They think they are doing what God’s sending them to do,” said Matos, who also works for the Observatory of Policies for Isolated Indigenous Peoples, a nonprofit organization. “So they don’t care about the disease. They don’t care about coronavirus. They don’t care about death. They are certain they are doing what God sends them to do on Earth.”
‘Highly Active Culture Change Agents’
Headquartered in Sanford, Florida, Ethnos360 has deployed Christian missionaries to Brazil and other parts of the world since its founding in 1942. Its main mission is to reach people in areas where there are no existing translations of the Bible, and it focuses heavily on indigenous populations. It claims to have translated the New Testament into 88 “ethnic languages” and says it is in the process of translating it into 114 more, according to Ministry Watch, which compiles information on Christian charities.
The group’s beliefs are rooted in a literalist reading of Biblical texts, said Daniel Everett, a linguist and former Christian missionary who became familiar with New Tribes Mission during his time in the Brazilian Amazon.
“They’re an extremely conservative, fundamentalist evangelical group,” Everett, who is now an atheist, told HuffPost. “They’re out to definitely convert tribespeople of Brazil to evangelical Christianity as they know it from the USA.”
The organization’s efforts are rigorous: It has constructed a replica version of a Brazilian indigenous village in Pennsylvania to train missionaries, the BBC Brazil reported in 2018. New Tribes missionaries spend years trying to make contact with indigenous peoples, learning their language, translating the Gospel into that language, and converting locals to Christianity. They often entice members with food, medicines and basic tools that tribes otherwise wouldn’t be able to access, Everett said.
“They’re highly active culture change agents,” he said. “And they’re unapologetic about that.”
Ethnos360, which did not respond to requests for comment, is funded almost entirely by charitable donations. In 2018, the U.S. operation took in nearly $60 million in contributions, according to Ministry Watch.
The U.S. group changed its name in recent years after a widespread and heavily publicized investigation into allegations of rampant child sexual abuse within its international chapters.
Ethnos360 “has a long and harsh track record” across South America, said Fiona Watson, a Brazil researcher at Survival International, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of isolated peoples and has campaigned against New Tribes for decades. The New Tribes Mission of Brazil is “probably the most aggressive and hardline of all the evangelical missionary organizations” in the country, Watson said, and its history there is also marked by controversy.
In the 1980s, missionaries from New Tribes made contact with the Zo’é indigenous people in northern Brazil. The group’s missionaries were eventually expelled in 1991, after nearly one-quarter of the tribe’s members died from various infectious disease outbreaks, according to Survival International. Another New Tribes representative in Brazil was imprisoned after he placed indigenous peoples in slavelike conditions.
The helicopter would 'open the door' for missionaries 'to reach 10 additional people groups living in extreme isolation,' Ethnos360 said on its website.
Still, the New Tribes Mission of Brazil feels it has not kept pace with evangelical movements (many also backed by U.S. groups) that have made inroads in Brazil’s urban centers. The country’s indigenous people speak more than 180 languages, but “only 26 have the complete New Testament translated into their languages,” a blog post on its website laments.
The helicopter was the key to rapidly advancing New Tribes’ work in the Javari Valley. The chopper would “open the door” for its missionaries “to reach 10 additional people groups living in extreme isolation,” Ethnos360 said on its website. In a YouTube video that promoted the fundraising drive, an American missionary noted that the Javari Valley was home to “the highest concentration of uncontacted people groups anywhere in the world.”
“This is why we need a helicopter,” said the missionary, who also said he had worked for Ethnos360 in Brazil since 2006. The group exceeded its $2 million goal. (In a similar fundraiser for its chapter in the Philippines, Ethnos360 refers to a helicopter as “The Barrier Crusher.”)
Missionaries from New Tribes visited at least one indigenous village in the Javari Valley in late February, not long before Brazil reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19, according to local tribal leaders.
On March 17, as the coronavirus outbreak spread across Brazil, the country’s justice and health ministries ordered nonindigenous Brazilians to avoid making contact with tribes in order to protect them from the outbreak. New Tribes Mission of Brazil, however, continued flying to the Javari Valley anyway, O Globo reported last week.
Edward Luz, the head of New Tribes Mission of Brazil, initially told the newspaper that all of New Tribes’ missionaries had left the region in late February. O Globo, however, reported that at least one missionary had remained into mid-March, prompting Luz to say that the group had flown a final rescue mission to remove him on March 19. After O Globo’s report was published, Luz disputed the paper’s reporting in an online statement. But he also changed the date of the final flight again, saying that the last missionary and two others left the valley via helicopter on March 23.
Citing an unnamed source in the region, O Globo reported that the same helicopter made at least three trips in the Javari Valley in the final days of March and in early April. A spokesman for FUNAI, the government agency charged with protecting indigenous lands and rights in Brazil, told HuffPost that it authorized no such trips during that window, and was not aware of any that were made.
Eliana Camejo, a spokeswoman for New Tribes Mission of Brazil, denied that any flights had been made during that period in a written response to questions from HuffPost. She said that the trip on March 23 had been logged and approved in accordance with Brazilian regulations. Camejo said that New Tribes Mission of Brazil had ordered its missionaries out of indigenous lands on March 20, and that all of them had left following that order. Echoing Luz, she noted that New Tribes missionaries were gone before the areas reported their first COVID-19 cases.
New Tribes has “NEVER” tried to reach isolated peoples, and was not doing so in the Javari Valley, Camejo said. The trips it had taken had been authorized by local indigenous leaders in a community the organization has worked with for 60 years, she said. Camejo said the organization had provided that information to O Globo before its report, and that it has asked O Globo for space in the newspaper to dispute its reporting.
Ethnos360 and New Tribes Mission of Brazil partnered to purchase the helicopter, Camejo said. But while the two groups are “sister organizations” that “share affinities” and the “same goals,” she said they are separately governed and funded. “MNTB is Brazilian, supported almost entirely by donations from the Brazilian Evangelical Church,” Camejo said.
Because most of the Javari Valley’s indigenous tribes are opposed to the presence of the missionaries, the tribes would likely know if New Tribes continued to make “surreptitious efforts” to reach any indigenous groups in spite of the government’s restrictions, Watson said. But, she added, New Tribes Mission’s missionaries are also “experts in operating ‘under the radar.’”
Neither FUNAI nor other outside organizations were aware that New Tribes had made contact with the Zo’é people until years after they first reached them in 1987, and only discovered that they had once widespread disease outbreaks hammered the tribe, Watson said.
In response to the judge’s ruling, Camejo said that New Tribes would reiterate to UNIVAJA and the court that it does not work with isolated peoples and had left the area by March 23.
If The New Tribes Mission of Brazil avoids work with isolated tribes, in accordance with the Brazilian constitution, that would break from its American partner: Ethnos360, which used to publish a magazine called “Brown Gold,” states that its goal is to reach “the last tribe regardless of where that tribe might be.”
Increased Danger From A Far-Right Government
FUNAI has traditionally taken a skeptical stance toward foreign missionaries, but protecting indigenous and isolated tribes in an area as vast as the Amazon and a country as large as Brazil is difficult even in the best of times.
There are deep fears among indigenous groups now that, under Bolsonaro and Lopes Dias, FUNAI won’t even try to uphold the regulations protecting indigenous tribes and isolated peoples.
Bolsonaro has a long history of disparaging indigenous peoples with racist and xenophobic language, and gutting agencies and regulations that protect indigenous Brazilians and the Amazon is a central goal of his presidency.
Agencies like FUNAI have suffered severe budget cuts that have limited their enforcement capabilities, and Bolsonaro, who has sought to open the Amazon and indigenous lands to mining and agriculture interests, folded FUNAI into a new ministry of human rights headed by Damares Alves, a conservative evangelical pastor and former missionary. (Brazil’s Congress has since moved FUNAI back into the Ministry of Justice.)
The first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency was the deadliest in more than two decades for indigenous people, and raids from invading miners, loggers and other industrial interests put their lives and their lands even further at risk from violence and infectious diseases even before the pandemic began.
Leaders from New Tribes Mission of Brazil openly celebrated the February appointment of Lopes Dias, who had spent 10 years as a missionary with the group. Tribal organizations and researchers, though, were distraught and fearful.
Lopes Dias was trained as an anthropologist, but “the only experience he has working with indigenous peoples in the field was as a missionary,” Matos, the anthropologist, said. “This is a very, very technical area. You have to know the specific realities of these people. We’ve never had someone like this ― someone who was totally against [FUNAI] policy ― in this position. And missionary work is something that is totally against this policy.”
Now that everyone’s social distancing, that’s what these people have been doing for the last 100 years. It’s extreme social distancing based on genocidal experience. Andrew Miller, Amazon Watch
Further undermining FUNAI’s mission wouldn’t be that hard for someone who opposes it. He’d just need to “close his eyes and do nothing,” Matos said. “To protect, you have to act. You have to forbid. You have to watch the territory. You have to block the people who invade the territory. You have to act for the protected people. You have to act to protect the land.”
After years of fierce opposition from indigenous tribes and the Brazilian government, miners, loggers and industrial interests now have the open support of Bolsonaro, and they have taken advantage: Illegal raids from miners and loggers that were already more common under Bolsonaro have continued in the early stages of the pandemic, because the people “promoting deforestation in the Amazon are not quarantined,” said Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a Brazil-based environmental nonprofit. “They know the government and the state aren’t there operating during the pandemic.”
Lopes Dias’ appointment, which Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry has tried to cancel over his lack of relevant experience, has inspired fears that missionary groups now feel they have the same license, and will be eager to use it. “I am sure [missionaries] feel empowered,” Watson said.
The danger the coronavirus poses has sparked increasing calls to respect isolated tribes’ wish to be left alone ― a desire that is rooted in past contact they had with outsiders who brought diseases that threatened to wipe them out ― and for missionaries and the people who financially support them to understand why uncontacted tribes are isolated in the first place.
“Now that everyone’s social distancing, that’s what these people have been doing for the last 100 years,” said Andrew Miller, the advocacy director at Amazon Watch, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works with indigenous tribes in Brazil. “It’s extreme social distancing based on genocidal experience.”
But even if they’ve left indigenous lands for now, fundamentalist missionaries won’t likely see the coronavirus outbreak as a reason to stop proselytizing. At least not for long.
“The Bible says to go to the uttermost and the uncontacted fit that definition quite well,” Everett, the former missionary, said. “People would say, ‘Well, I’m willing to wait a bit, but how many people are going to die before I get there? And the ones who die before I get there are going to hell, so I’ve gotta get there and save them. And if I have to die or a couple of them have to die, well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.’”