The evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias has been removed as the head of the “General Coordination of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples” by Judge Antonio Souza Prudente who ruled that his appointment was clearly a conflict of interest and a threat to the policy of no forced contact with voluntarily isolated indigenous peoples and the principle of self-determination, foundational concepts of FUNAI.
The current president of FUNAI, Marcelo Augusto Xavier, made a special ordinance a week before the appointment of Lopes Dias that allowed him to accept the job as head of CGIIRC for which he would not have previously been qualified. That ordinance was annulled as well.
FUNAI said it would comply with Judge Prudente’s decision but plans to appeal it in higher courts. The president of FUNAI is also a federal police officer from Mato Grosso state, an agribusiness stronghold and top producer of soy and corn, with 30 million cattle, ten times its human population.
The years when Sydney Possuelo, who devoted his life to protecting and advocating for isolated indigenous groups, was head of the CGIIRC came to an end in 2006 after he criticized the FUNAI director at the time and was dismissed from his position. In subsequent years, the FUNAI has been partially dismantled and weakened.
As the appointment of Lopes Dias was suspended, a bill, PL1142/2020, was passed in Congress to respond to the coronavirus threat to indigenous peoples with urgent measures, but evangelical lawmakers included a section at the last moment allowing religious missionaries access to the territories of isolated indigenous groups. Previously, approaching isolated indigenous groups could only be organized by qualified people in FUNAI.
Fundamentalist evangelical missionaries, craving more “unreached” souls to convert to the Gospel, have been attempting for decades to contact additional isolated indigenous communities and have found an ally in Bolsonaro who won the election with the support of evangelicals, gold miners, loggers, ranchers and various lobbies.
Bolsonaro made lavish electoral promises to all of them.
Bolsonaro and Ricardo Salles, the Environmental Minister, have been pressing for legislation to open indigenous territories to commercial exploitation. A video of a meeting in April reveals Salles proposing to use the diversion created by the media’s focus on COVID-19 to change regulations in order to deregulate environmental norms and “get the cattle grazing” in the Amazon. The government is pushing for approval of a law that would permit ranchers and farmers who have been illegally occupying land in protected indigenous territories to claim legal title. This outrageous piece of legislation is termed the “land grabbers bill” by indigenous leaders.
Brazil’s vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, insisted implausibly that the law would help curb deforestation and stated that not knowing precisely who owns the land makes prosecution for damage difficult, disregarding the fact that fines for environmental destruction have been suspended by the government since October and known offenders have not been punished. Satellite data shows that forest destruction has increased under Bolsonaro’s deliberate, reckless facilitation of commercial exploitation.
FUNAI has not yet presented a coherent plan for helping isolated communities avoid coronavirus contamination. Indigenous deaths from COVID-19 are mainly in areas overrun with gold miners who are vectors of the disease. During the pandemic, illegal gold miners continue to gain ground; deforesting and mining in indigenous territories and endangering the villages of isolated peoples. The coronavirus pandemic has served as an excuse to disenfranchise indigenous peoples of their constitutionally guaranteed rights and put them at risk of genocide.
The coronavirus has infected more than a thousand indigenous people in the Amazon region and hundreds have died. The toll of this health catastrophe worsens daily. In much of the Amazon people can only reach a hospital by boat or a small plane. The distance to the nearest intensive care unit is between 300 and 1000 kilometers from most villages. These structural issues have intensified as few ICU beds or ventilators are available for all of the patients who need them.
Field hospitals are not being built in indigenous territories and indigenous people with coronavirus have a mortality rate double the national average. The number of indigenous people infected by the virus is increasing exponentially. The government’s apparent agenda of ecocide and ethnocide; “nature is for sale and indigenous peoples are expendable if they get in the way of lobbies making more money”, are bringing devastation and mourning to indigenous communities across the Amazon.
One of the immense tragedies that these deaths represent is the loss of the wisdom of elders in each indigenous community decimated by the virus; storytellers of ancestral myths, those with expertise in traditional dances, songs and rituals, shamans and healers who communicate with the plants and spirits of the forest…