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  • Around 100 isolated groups live in Brazil’s Amazon with 16 of them in the same reserve in the Javari Valley.

    Around 100 isolated groups live in Brazil’s Amazon with 16 of them in the same reserve in the Javari Valley. | Photo: EFE

Published 24 March 2020
Opinion

Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus could wipe out any of Brazil's indigenous isolated tribes.

Isolated tribes in the Brazilian Amazon are at high risk of contracting deadly diseases including the coronavirus because of missionaries who swore to convert all of them, a report from the Guardian published Monday revealed. 

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A United States-based group of radical missionaries called Ethnos360 and formerly known as New Tribes Mission has set itself with the task of entering in contact with, and converting every last tribe on the planet.

In a video posted in 2018, Ethnos360 made a call to raise money and buy a helicopter to reach the Indigenous tribes in Brazil.

After buying the helicopter, the group based it beside a reserve in the Brazilian Amazon with the world’s highest concentration of isolated groups, who have little to no resistance to common illnesses such as measles and flu. 

Around 100 isolated groups live in Brazil’s Amazon, with 16 of them in the same reserve in the Javari Valley. Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, could wipe out any of them.

“History shows us that any contagious disease can be catastrophic for these people,” said Douglas Rodrigues, a professor of medicine at the Federal University of Sao Paulo with substantial experience in isolated Indigenous groups.

Since the far-right president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro took power in January 2019, evangelical Christians have extended their influence in the South American country. Bolsonaro relies on their support and has himself a record of racist comments, calling Indigenous people living on protected reserves “prehistoric.”

“The route is being prepared,” Rodrigues said. “They are ready to invade these territories and do these contacts. New Tribes’ mission is clear.”

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The indigenous association of the Javari Valley, Univaja, urged the authorities to take action to “avoid the worst.”

But the Brazilian government official now in charge of isolated and recently contacted tribes at the government’s indigenous agency, Funai, was formerly a member of the missionary group, which has had a controversial history for decades in Brazil. 

“They are fundamentalist believers,” said Daniel Everett, an American linguist and former missionary in the Brazilian Amazon who knows the group well. “Their views are extremely 19th century.”

New Tribes Mission was expelled by Funai from a remote region in 1991 after they contacted an isolated group of Zo’é indigenous people. 

The Zo’é tribe suffered from malaria, which they said they had never seen before the missionaries arrived, and flu. Tests showed none had been vaccinated against anything, Rodrigues said. 

“It is inadmissible that you enter into contact with a group like this … and don’t vaccinate them,” he said.

“Without experience in doing contact, the missionaries caused great mortality in these people,” Funai employee Fiorello Parise told anthropologist Felipe Milanez, in his book Memories of Indigenous Specialists (Memórias Sertanistas).

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