people in the crowd

Evangelicals in Brazil want to make contact with Indigenous groups. But why?

Indigenous communities in Brazil have long had a difficult relationship with Christian missionaries. Experts say it's not about religion, but mineral riches.

The World

Earlier this month, a Brazilian Supreme Court Justice ordered the government of President Jair Bolsonaro to do more to protect the lives and territory of the country’s isolated tribes.

They number in the thousands, and there are about 100 distinct tribes scattered throughout Brazil’s Amazon region. Contacting these people directly is illegal. That’s because they’re vulnerable to ailments like the common cold.

It’s also about respecting their desire to preserve their way of life. This hasn’t stopped Christian missionaries, though, and Bolsonaro has done his best to support their cause.

In 2020, Bolsonaro appointed an evangelical pastor and missionary, Ricardo Lopes Dias, to oversee the country’s department of isolated and recently contacted tribes. Dias had worked as a missionary with New Tribes Mission Brazil for a decade.

New Tribes is now called Ethnos 360. It’s a Florida-based evangelical group that trains missionaries to spread the gospel to Indigenous people and, in particular, those who have never heard about Christianity. According to the website, the group has 3,000 missionaries around the world and training programs in more than a dozen countries.

It caused a stir in early 2020, when it raised $2 million to buy a helicopter to increase access to Native peoples in remote regions of Brazil.

Indigenous leaders fought the appointment of Dias. And they won. He was removed less than a year later, following a court order.

But Dias’ appointment was a sign of how Bolsonaro has embraced the evangelical cause.

Bolsonaro has consistently backed the missionaries. So, what’s behind their interest in Indigenous communities?

Experts say Bolsonaro’s real interest in the Amazon is not the people or their souls, but the mineral riches that are found there.

“For Bolsonaro, the Amazon is a great treasure chest, but there are Indians in the way,” said Rodrigo Toniol, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “The arrival of evangelicals to Indigenous territories is part of a process that’s far beyond just converting them. For Bolsonaro, it’s not about saving souls.”

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