In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which is ravaging Brazil, landing in and lifting off from villages in the Amazon region’s Vale do Javari in order to contact and evangelize indigenous communities in this remote and difficult to reach area, fundamentalist evangelical missionaries will stop at nothing. The Javari Valley region has the largest number of un-contacted indigenous peoples in the world who are highly susceptible to diseases brought in from what we consider civilisation.
There are at least 100 isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon basin living in concordance and harmony with their environment, traditions and ancestral beliefs as they have for thousands of years.
Over 500 years after the first colonizers arrived in Brazil and began to destroy indigenous lands and lives, missionaries from the US are continuing this dangerous obsession. The very notion of forced religious conversion or “salvation” of indigenous peoples is an affront to these ancestral cultures and to the constitutionally guaranteed self-determination of indigenous communities.
Reports by Marubo, Mayoruna and Matsé indigenous leaders reveal that a US-based missionary, Andrew Tonkin, has organized with other members of the “Frontier International Mission” to go on an expedition to Igarape Lambança in order to convert uncontacted indigenous communities in the Javari valley. “The missionaries have purchased flashlights and other equipment to try to go into the Javari valley again. Andrew said he has already received clearance from God up there in the heavens, and there is no law greater than that who can prohibit his entry” stated a catechized indigenous convert who participated in a meeting with Andrew Tonkin and another missionary from the US, Josiash Mcintyre.
Kenampa Marubo, general coordinator of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari (Unijava) reports receiving threats from US missionaries. On March 25 Josiash Mcintyre, accompanied by a young Marubo convert, invaded the Unijava headquarters in Atalaia do Norte. Their objective was to pressure and intimidate the indigenous people working there into giving them an official permit to enter the Vale do Javari as required by the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI).
The missionaries already have highly developed logistics for accessing the isolated communities; drones, computers, firearms, GPS and satellite phones. To reach isolated groups in Igarape Lambança they plan to use the same single-engine seaplane that belongs to the missionary Wilson Kannenberg which they used in the past for their previous attempts.
The website of the Frontier International Mission “a free will Baptist ministry” is full of sentimental, misspelled religious platitudes and the motto “to know Him is to make Him known.” It states that Andrew Tonkin “has been doing missionary work for over eleven year in the Amazon basin. His work consist of indigenous church planting and church growth mission work.” On another part of the website is this garbled phrase: “Let us pray so the enemies doesn’t crept in and cause confusion, making gain at the expense of this precious emerging church.”
Tonkin claims that he is not currently in Brazil, but indigenous leaders say he is lying and is actually in Benjamin Constant, a city near Atalaia do Norte where several of the missionaries are based. One Frontier International Mission family proclaims on the website: “Our heart and goal in ministry is to reach the un-reached among the indigenous people of the Javari valley…for us to be able to share the Gospel with them, and then teach, train and empower them to bring the Gospel back to their own people.” A Marubo indigenous elder counters: “Our concern is that, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, there still exists the insistence of proselytizing fundamentalist groups working to this end which is an irresponsible and criminal attitude.”
The Amazon has been invaded historically by miners, loggers, ranchers and missionaries, some of whom may now be contaminated with coronavirus. As the pandemic spreads in Brazil there is a real and terrifying possibility that vulnerable, remote indigenous communities may be decimated by the disease after contact with outsiders as they have no resistance or immunity to even common occidental diseases such as influenza or measles. A Covid-19 outbreak could be deadly for Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people who are particularly sensitive to respiratory diseases. Many of the more acculturated indigenous communities like the Kayapo in the Xingu river basin in the states of Mato Grosso and Para have decreed a lockdown and refuse access to anyone from outside the community in order to prevent the virus from spreading among them.
For many of the indigenous groups in the Javari valley that have chosen to remain isolated from contact with the outside world, practicing any form of “social isolation” is complicated. The risk of one infected person spreading disease to all of the members of the group is overwhelming in the large traditional thatched structures in which communal villagers occupy the same living space. “Bringing the Gospel back to their own people.” could lead to the annihilation of the community.