Top missionary official in Brazil forced out for second time

Evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias has been forced from office as head of the Uncontacted Tribes Department – for the second time.

Evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias has been forced from office as head of the Uncontacted Tribes Department – for the second time.
© Ricardo Lopes Dias

Ricardo Lopes Dias, an evangelical missionary, has been forced from his job as head of the Uncontacted Tribes Unit of Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency FUNAI for the second time.

Indigenous leaders of UNIVAJA, the indigenous peoples’ organization of the Javari Valley who have fought Mr Lopes Dias’ appointment since it was first announced, celebrated his departure.

Mr Lopes Dias’ appointment to the post earlier this year 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. ” Mr Lopes Dias is a former member of the notorious New Tribes Mission, re-branded as Ethnos360 in the US.

Sources have told Survival that there was widespread anger in FUNAI at a fundamentalist missionary being appointed to such a post, and repeated accusations of incompetence and arrogance.

Evangelical missionaries have re-doubled their efforts to contact uncontacted tribes under President Bolsonaro, who wants to open up their lands to commercial exploitation, and has strong evangelical support.

A FUNAI whistleblower revealed in September that Mr Lopes Dias had made a clandestine visit to the Javari Valley, home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else on Earth.

The NTM in Brazil unveil their new helicopter for reaching uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley in early 2020.

The NTM in Brazil unveil their new helicopter for reaching uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley in early 2020.
© NTM

Following legal action by public prosecutors and UNIVAJA, a judge ruled in May that Lopes Dias’s appointment was unlawful, and that he was to be removed from office with immediate effect. The ruling was later overturned.

In May, the first time Mr Lopes Dias was removed from office, Beto Marubo of UNIVAJA commented: "The indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley believe it was outrageous that a missionary be appointed to this position, and hope that this is a definitive decision. Brazilian justice has to recognize the two things are completely incompatible.”

Leonardo Lenin, Executive Secretary of OPI (the Observatory for the Human Rights of Uncontacted and Recently Contacted Tribes) said today: "A fundamentalist missionary at the head of FUNAI’s Uncontacted Tribes Unit was above all an affront to the self-determination of these peoples. Mr. Ricardo Lopes’ incompetence regarding public policy towards isolated Indians was evident on several occasions. One example of this was the chaotic way in which he coordinated the work to prevent Covid-19 reaching uncontacted and recently-contacted tribes. It’s now more obvious than ever that someone with real knowledge of this subject, and who respects the laws and rules that protect the rights of these peoples, is needed in this post.”

Sarah Shenker, Survival’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign coordinator, said today: “It’s a massive victory for the campaign to get Lopes Dias removed and to protect uncontacted tribes’ land. Indigenous organizations and their allies have led the charge and the public prosecutor’s office has taken key action.

“Survival and its supporters have campaigned and lobbied the authorities from the day Ricardo Lopes Dias was appointed at the start of the year. We’ll be watching closely to see what’s next, and we’ll continue to fight for uncontacted tribes’ lands to be protected and their right to live as they choose to be respected, always. Hopefully Bolsonaro will get the message that if he carries on with his genocidal agenda, he can expect resistance at every step.”

There are more than 100 uncontacted tribes in the world, most of them in Brazil, where missionaries have re-doubled their efforts to contact them.

There are more than 100 uncontacted tribes in the world, most of them in Brazil, where missionaries have re-doubled their efforts to contact them.
© G.Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

In many parts of Brazil, uncontacted tribes’ territories are the last significant areas of rainforest left. Now they are being targeted by land grabbers, loggers and ranchers who are destroying the forest at an alarming rate and threatening the survival of uncontacted tribes.

UNIVAJA, Leonardo Lenin at OPI, and Survival’s Sarah Shenker and Fiona Watson are available for interview.