Survival: Removal of top missionary official in Brazil is major blow for Bolsonaro

Evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias remains in office as head of the Uncontacted Indians Department

Evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias remains in office as head of the Uncontacted Indians Department
© Ricardo Lopes Dias

A judge’s ruling today that has removed a controversial missionary from a top government position is a major blow to President Bolsonaro, according to a statement from Survival International.

Ricardo Lopes Dias, an evangelical missionary and former member of the New Tribes Mission/Ethnos 360, was appointed head of the Uncontacted Indians’ Unit of the Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI) in February.

The appointment was hugely controversial, and was described at the time by Survival’s Sarah Shenker as “ like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. ” Evangelical missionaries have re-doubled their efforts to contact uncontacted tribes under President Bolsonaro, who is pushing legislation to open up their lands to commercial exploitation, and has strong evangelical support.

The NTM in Brazil unveil their new helicopter for reaching uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley

The NTM in Brazil unveil their new helicopter for reaching uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley
© NTM

Now a judge has ruled that Lopes Dias’s appointment was unlawful, and he has been removed from office with immediate effect. Judge Antonio Souza Prudente said in his ruling: “The appointment was “a clear conflict of interest” and a “great risk to the policy of no forced contact with [uncontacted indigenous] peoples… and the principle of self-determination.”

Beto Marubo of the indigenous organization UNIVAJA said today: “The indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley knew that putting a missionary in charge of the Uncontacted Indians’ unit was harmful, and hope this decision won’t be appealed.”

In another landmark ruling last month following a lawsuit brought by UNIVAJA, a judge blocked evangelical missionaries from making contact with uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley.

The public prosecutors’ office who brought the Ricardo Lopes Dias case said today: “We had access to documents signed by international missionary organizations to which Ricardo Lopes Dias is connected that prove the involvement of the New Tribes Mission of Brazil, to which he belonged for ten years, in a plan to make forced contacts and evangelize uncontacted tribes.”

Sarah Shenker, head of Survival’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign, said this evening: “This is a huge victory for the campaign to defend uncontacted tribes’ land. Lopes Dias’s appointment was effectively a declaration of war against their right to the protection of their territories, and the right to remain uncontacted if that is what they want.

“It was a key part of Bolsonaro’s explicit policy to destroy the country’s indigenous peoples – to dismantle the teams that protect their territories, and sell off their lands to loggers, miners and ranchers.

Uncontacted Indians in Brazil seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010

Uncontacted Indians in Brazil seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010
© G.Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

“Uncontacted tribes currently protect vast areas of resource-rich, highly biodiverse forest. Under Lopes Dias, all of it was in danger of being opened up, first to evangelical missionaries, then to big business. That would very likely have led to whole tribes being wiped out. Now there’s a glimmer of hope that that won’t happen.

“It’s a massive victory for the campaign to get Lopes Dias removed. Indigenous organizations in Brazil have led the charge, Survival has broadcast their campaign around the world and lobbied the authorities for months, and supporters have flooded social media with messages and videos and sent 10,000 protest emails. Hopefully Bolsonaro will get the message that if he carries on with his genocidal agenda, he can expect resistance at every step.”

Survival’s Sarah Shenker and Fiona Watson are available for interview.