RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s government on Wednesday tapped a former Christian missionary to oversee the protection of isolated Indigenous tribes in Brazil, prompting an outcry among anthropologists and experts within the government.
In a rare letter of protest, the association that represents career employees at Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency called the appointment of Ricardo Lopes Dias, an anthropologist and evangelical preacher, a dangerous move that could cause “irreparable damage” to vulnerable groups that have chosen to live in isolation.
Since the late 1980s, Brazil’s government has largely refrained from making contact with the dozens of tribes living in voluntary isolation, most of them in the Amazon.
The National Indian Foundation, the federal agency created to protect Indigenous communities, has argued that uncontacted tribes deserve to be protected from outsiders. Such contacts are often devastating for isolated communities, which can easily be ravaged by common diseases.
But some evangelical missionaries have long been eager to seek converts among Indigenous peoples in the Amazon.
Mr. Dias worked for several years for an American missionary group that sought to establish a Christian church in every Indigenous community in Brazil.
“The initiative to establish a church in each community is at odds with the recognition of the diversity of the communities and their cultures,” which is protected by the Constitution, the indigenous agency employee association said in its statement.
Mr. Dias said in an interview Wednesday afternoon that he had “no interest” in using the post to evangelize. He said he has yet to receive guidance from senior government officials regarding the no-contact policy that has been in force since the 1980s, adding that it was too soon to say whether it needs to be reconsidered.
Mr. Dias defended his work as a missionary and said he was qualified for the job.
“I understand there is a lot of apprehension regarding what the work of missionaries entails,” he said. “I don’t see this as a mission or an opportunity to find new converts. I have no interest in going there with a Bible in hand.”
The appointment comes amid broader concerns about the future of Brazil’s Indigenous communities.
President Jair Bolsonaro has long been critical of the policy of setting aside vast territories for Indigenous groups, calling it an impediment to economic growth. His administration is seeking to create a legal framework that would allow mining ventures in some of those lands.
He has also compared indigenous communities living in remote areas to animals in a zoo.
The most vulnerable of Brazil’s Indigenous communities are the groups — which by some estimates number more than 100 — that have had little or no contact with the outside world. The National Indian Foundation has confirmed sightings of approximately 28 such communities, and provides health care and guidance to about 11 of them that have recently chosen to emerge from total isolation.
The missionary group Mr. Dias worked for from 1997 to 2007, which was called New Tribes Mission at the time and is now known as Ethnos360, argued that there is an urgent need to convert all tribes that have not been exposed to “the Gospel of Christ” in order to save them from “unrelenting spiritual darkness.”
“I’ve been in many of these tribes and at times you can feel this incredible and tense darkness,” Larry Brown, the group’s chief executive, said in a video posted on its website. “But you know what I found: No darkness is too dark for God.”
Leila Sílvia Burger Sotto-Maior, an anthropologist who retired from the National Indian Foundation in 2018, said there is deep alarm among her former colleagues at the agency about the fate of uncontacted and newly contacted tribes under the current government.
The agency, known as FUNAI, has been hit with budget cuts that have sharply limited its ability to monitor indigenous territories that have been invaded by wildcat miners, farmers and loggers.
“There is a sense that a policy that was built over so many years, and was working, is now being dismantled,” she said. “There’s a sense of hopelessness.”
Márcio Santilli, a prominent Indigenous rights activist in Brazil and a former head of FUNAI, said he worries that a government that was elected with strong support from evangelicals will enable the kind of missionary work that has in recent decades been officially discouraged, including efforts to suppress the cultural traditions and spiritual practices of Indigenous people.
“The Constitution is very clear in its protection of the cultural identity of Indigenous people, including those in isolation,” he said. “There’s a risk that the state would become a vehicle for religious groups that don’t want to protect the cultural identity of those communities.”
Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro and Letícia Casado from Brasília.