TRANSGRESSION: Isolated indigenous peoples, Missionaries and the COVID-19/Erasure of Indigenous Existence – proselytism in the time of coronavirus: Part 3

Brazil’s remote and difficult to reach Javari Valley region has the largest number of un-contacted indigenous peoples in the world who are highly susceptible to diseases brought into their territory from what we consider civilisation.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which is ravaging Brazil, fundamentalist evangelical missionaries now have as the head of FUNAI’s “General Coordination of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples” one of their own.

Original image by Ricardo Stuckert, reworked by Barbara Crane Navarro

Ricardo Lopes Dias, an evangelical “church planting” missionary and anthropologist, was confirmed as the new head of the Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (CGIIRC) section of the Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI) in February, 2020. Journalist Daniel Biasetto of O Globo exposed the falsehood that Lopes Dias was no longer linked to the widely discredited, fanatical New Tribes Mission of Brazil (MNTB) and that Lopes Dias had lied about his continued involvement in missionary evangelization projects when he was chosen for the position. 

photo © Ricardo Lopes Dias

GLOBO collected testimonies of indigenous people who worked with Pastor Lopes Dias, not only at the MNTB, but also at the First Baptist Church of Guaianases. After working for years with MNTB to evangelize the Matsé people in the Vale do Javari, Ricardo and his wife, Arlete Dias, returned to São Paulo in 2013 where they joined the First Baptist Church of Guaianase with a project of indigenous evangelization. Lopes Dias claimed that he hadn’t worked with MNTB for ten years when, in fact, he and his wife were still giving conferences and lectures, as well as participating in the training of already converted indigenous people; teaching them a rigorously fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible so that they could become “multipliers” within their ethnic group with the goal of converting others.

Ad for the cult aimed at indigenous missions at the First Baptist Church of Guaianases, taught by Ricardo Lopes Dias in 2018 Photo: Reproduction

One of the most vital functions of the CGIIRC coordinator is to work with confidential information regarding the exact location of isolated and recently contacted peoples and to grant or refuse permission to enter these indigenous territories. Additionally, the CGIIRC coordinator has the power to approve expeditions to locate isolated indigenous peoples. One purpose of the sector that is now under the leadership of Lopes Dias is to prevent the invasion of missionaries in these territories in order to prohibit any religious proselytism and Lopes Dias’ ongoing involvement in evangelization is clearly a conflict of interest for the position he occupies. In addition to contravening the policy of non-contact guaranteed by the 1988 Constitution, it violates the determination of voluntarily isolated indigenous communities to maintain their ancestral cosmological beliefs and traditional customs.

The MNTB (re-branded Ethnos360) proclaims their objective as “taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth and reaching the unreached” which is forced conversion, a practice condemned by most anthropologists and indigenous peoples. The association that regroups the missionary churches of Brazil (AMNTB) displays a  map indicating the areas of the Amazon where there is not yet a missionary presence or “knowledge of Jesus.” Edward Luz, president of the MNTB states that approximately 150 ethnic groups are still “to be reached with the Gospel within Brazil.”  Meanwhile, confronted by a ferocious international reaction to their proselytizing practices in the Javari Valley, the MNTB headquarters in Guajará-Mirim, Rondônia, has recently updated its security…

The MNTB headquarters in Guajará-Mirim, Rondônia with recently updated security measures

Due to the threat of coronavirus, the Justice Department of Amazonas ordered the withdrawal of missionaries from the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. The Federal Court decision requested that FUNAI comply with the orders and prohibit the entry of the American missionaries Andrew Tonkin, Josiah Mcintyre, Wilson Kannenberg as well as any representative of the MNTB or other religious organizations following a GLOBO report that revealed a plan by American missionaries to contact isolated peoples in the region. One of the elements cited in the action is the close relationship of Pastor Lopes Dias, general coordinator of CGIIRC at FUNAI, with the subjects of the request to limit access. Lopes Dias is accused by indigenous communities of dereliction of his responsibilities at CGIIRC for not pursuing accusations concerning recent invasions by missionaries in Vale do Javari, nor of formulating a contingency plan to be implemented for dealing with the coronavirus health crisis in potentially affected communities.

The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has requested the suspension of Lopes Dias’ appointment as the head of the CGIIRC,  maintaining that he has deep connections with “an organization whose goal is to proselytize in isolated or recently contacted indigenous communities, creating a relation of dependency favorable to the propagation of the evangelical faith.” In the legal action, the MPF sees a threat of genocide and ethnocide against isolated indigenous peoples, a conflict of interest, technical incompatibility and a serious risk of regression in the policy of non-contact in relation to these peoples. However, the court decision did not take into account the devious maneuver made by the current president of FUNAI, Marcelo Augusto Xavier, to change the internal regulations a week before Lopes Dias was appointed. The fact that he was not a public servant would have previously prevented him from taking office. FUNAI defends its decision by saying that an attempt to suspend Lopes Dias is “religious prejudice because he professes the evangelical faith” and that this “does not mean that there is authorization from FUNAI for the supposed interference of missionaries in indigenous areas.”

Bolsonaro’s pro-development environmental policies are already putting isolated indigenous peoples at risk of genocide. Lopes Dias’ appointment as the head of the CGIIRC, a position with parameters he clearly isn’t capable of implementing with integrity, increases this threat.

photo: Ricardo Stuckert

Currently, there are nearly 100 documented instances of the presence of isolated indigenous communities in Brazil to be researched for confirmation. A wrong decision can lead to the extermination of indigenous groups existing in these regions, as has occurred far too often in the history of the Amazon and the Americas.

About Barbara Crane Navarro - Rainforest Art Project

I'm a French artist living near Paris. From 1968 to 1973 I studied at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, then at the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco, California, for my BFA. My work for many decades has been informed and inspired by time spent with indigenous communities. Various study trips devoted to the exploration of techniques and natural pigments took me originally to the Dogon of Mali, West Africa, and subsequently to Yanomami communities in Venezuela and Brazil. Over many years, during the winters, I studied the techniques of traditional Bogolan painting. Hand woven fabric is dyed with boiled bark from the Wolo tree or crushed leaves from other trees, then painted with mud from the Niger river which oxidizes in contact with the dye. Through the Dogon and the Yanomami, my interest in the multiplicity of techniques and supports for aesthetic expression influenced my artistic practice. The voyages to the Amazon Rainforest have informed several series of paintings created while living among the Yanomami. The support used is roughly woven canvas prepared with acrylic medium then textured with a mixture of sand from the river bank and lava. This supple canvas is then rolled and transported on expeditions into the forest. They are then painted using a mixture of acrylic colors and Achiote and Genipap, the vegetal pigments used by the Yanomami for their ritual body paintings and on practical and shamanic implements. My concern for the ongoing devastation of the Amazon Rainforest has inspired my films and installation projects. Since 2005, I've created a perfomance and film project - Fire Sculpture - to bring urgent attention to Rainforest issues. To protest against the continuing destruction, I've publicly set fire to my totemic sculptures. These burning sculptures symbolize the degradation of nature and the annihilation of indigenous cultures that depend on the forest for their survival.
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2 Responses to TRANSGRESSION: Isolated indigenous peoples, Missionaries and the COVID-19/Erasure of Indigenous Existence – proselytism in the time of coronavirus: Part 3

  1. The indigenous communities do not need these religious hypocrites! God is present in everything that exists in nature…

  2. Crimes against the right to ethnic identity, against the rights of indigenous peoples, against humanity. Endless abuse in sight … The genocide continues!

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