A former missionary tapped to head the Brazilian government’s programs to protect uncontacted indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest was fired Friday, after the appointment sparked outrage among rights activists.
Evangelical pastor Ricardo Lopes Dias, who was controversially named in February to head the department for Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples at the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), was removed by order of the justice ministry after a campaign to oust him.
His appointment was one on a long list of controversial decisions on the world’s biggest rainforest by the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who faces criticism for presiding over a surge in deforestation and pushing for indigenous lands to be opened to mining and agribusiness.
Dias’s appointment had been compared to “putting a fox in charge of the hen house” by indigenous rights group Survival International, which says missionaries have a history of mistreating indigenous groups and forcing contact with isolated tribes, with disastrous results.
The group hailed Dias’s firing as “a massive victory.”
“Survival and its supporters have campaigned and lobbied the authorities from the day Ricardo Lopes Dias was appointed at the start of the year,” said Sarah Shenker, a researcher for the group.
“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.”
Dias’s appointment was “outrageous,” and “we hope this decision is definitive,” said Beto Marubo, spokesman for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, in the Amazon region.
Lopes Dias, who is also a trained anthropologist, was a member of a missionary group called New Tribes Mission from 1997 to 2007.
The group faces accusations of forcing contact with isolated peoples, sex abuse in its schools and bringing deadly epidemics to communities with no immunity to outside diseases.
Dias had been accused of dispatching missionaries to contact isolated peoples, violating Brazil’s official policy of letting such groups live as they choose.
The Brazilian Amazon is believed to be home to 115 isolated indigenous groups, more than anywhere in the world, according to FUNAI.