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As COVID-19 rages, evangelical pastor may contact remote Amazon tribes

  • U.S. Christian Baptist evangelical missionary Andrew Tonkin, from Frontier International, is allegedly planning to contact and convert isolated indigenous groups in the Javari Indigenous Reserve in western Amazonas state, Brazil — an accusation Tonkin denies. Ethnos360, another evangelical group has similar plans.
  • Missionary work among isolated indigenous peoples is currently banned by FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency. Marubo and Mayoruna indigenous leaders made the accusation against Tonkin, who has invaded the Javari Reserve, flouting FUNAI regulations, in the past.
  • Brazil’s independent federal prosecutor’s office (MPF) has asked federal police to investigate Tonkin’s alleged plan of an illegal expedition to an area known as Igarapé Lambança, populated by isolated Korubo tribespeople. However, it is as yet unknown what action the federal police will take.
  • The risk of evangelicals unknowingly spreading coronavirus is just one threat to Javari Reserve inhabitants. Major invasions by traffickers, illegal miners and loggers, along with an upswing in violence are well underway there, while President Jair Bolsonaro continues planning to open indigenous reserves to large-scale mining.
Andrew Tonkin of U.S. Baptist missionary organization Frontier International. Image found on facebook.

As coronavirus cases spiral upward into the thousands in urban Brazil, indigenous leaders from one of the Amazon’s most remote frontiers have denounced what they say are the latest plans by a notorious U.S. missionary to contact and convert the region’s isolated tribal groups to Christianity — even though remote indigenous peoples are known to have little resistance against infectious disease.

Complaints by Marubo and Mayoruna indigenous leaders were first published in O Globo last week, reporting that Andrew Tonkin, from North Carolina, USA, and a leader of the Baptist missionary group Frontier International, is planning a trip into Brazil’s vast Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve in Amazonas state near the border with Peru.

“We heard that he was having meetings, preparing to try to go in again, that he was buying supplies,” Lucas Marubo told Mongabay; he is head of the Marubo Villages Organization of Rio Ituí (OAMI), and a member of the Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley Union (Univaja). “They are armed, have drones and GPS… a bunch of equipment to make contact… this is our fear,” he said.

The Javari Valley is larger than the nation of Austria and protects the world’s highest number of isolated tribes. Sixteen of the 26 Javari Valley indigenous groups are peoples who have chosen to remain isolated. Yet, this is the second occasion in recent times that an evangelical group has been accused of planning contact and conversion — Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) has bought a helicopter with that express purpose in mind.

Isolated indigenous’ groups have extremely vulnerable immune systems, meaning that contagious viral respiratory diseases like flu and measles can be deadly. Entering the reserve is only currently allowed with special permission from FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency.

In recent years, however, deep cuts to FUNAI’s budget helped result in the officially demarcated Javari Reserve seeing a sharp rise in illegal incursions by fishermen, poachers, drug traffickers, illegal loggers and wildcat miners, as well as attempted evangelization missions by Christian religious groups.

“It’s a total disaster. These guys couldn’t care less about the indigenous, they just want their souls,” said José Carlos Meirelles, who pioneered the “no contact” policy adopted by Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI), a policy successfully in-place for the past three decades. “They’ll literally kill them, and the few that survive, their culture will be destroyed… It’s genocide.”

Violence has also grown of late in the Javari region, with a FUNAI contractor executed by gunmen in Tabatinga last year, and a series of armed attacks on the Ituí-Itacoaí river base, the region’s main security post, forcing staff to abandon it. In 2018, stories of the alleged murder of isolated indigenous people by miners filtered out of the remote valley.

Brazil’s independent federal prosecutor’s office (MPF) has asked federal police to investigate Tonkin’s possible plan of an illegal expedition to an area known as Igarapé Lambança, populated by isolated Korubo tribespeople. However, it is as yet unknown what action the federal police will take.

In a letter to Tonkin, Prosecutor Antônio Bigonha reiterated the “extreme vulnerability” of isolated indigenous people to outside diseases, especially during the coronavirus crisis, and gave the American twenty-four hours to answer questions regarding the alleged expedition.

Tonkin, a missionary out of North Carolina’s Mount Hebron Baptist Church, is already the subject of two inquiries by Brazilian authorities for illegally entering the Javari Reserve.

Evangelical Andrew Tonkin and Christian missionary Wilson Kannenberg of “Rescue Wings,” an aviation missionary organization, pictured here with an unnamed indigenous man. Image found on facebook.

In 2014, he landed there in a seaplane belonging to Brazilian-born Christian evangelical leader Wilson Kannenberg of an aviation missionary organization known as Rescue Wings.

When federal police, army and FUNAI representatives went to retrieve him he used a satellite phone to call a plane and escape, a source familiar with the case told Mongabay.

Last year, indigenous leaders complained to FUNAI that Tonkin had re-entered their reserve. In a note, FUNAI confirmed to Mongabay that Tonkin had been called to its office in Brasília to explain himself.

Lucas Marubo told Mongabay that he and other leaders were informed of Tonkin’s potential return this year by Mayoruna leaders via their community Whatsapp group.

Screenshots of a Whatsapp conversation published by O Globo appear to show indigenous leaders denouncing Tonkin’s meeting with another American evangelical pastor, Josiash Mcintyre, in Atalaia do Norte, a city considered the gateway to the Javari Indigenous Reserve.

“You know what they’re doing?” one screenshot reads. “I’m convinced they’re planning to go in again,” reads another.

In an email to Mongabay, Tonkin refuted the accusations. “Let me be clear, and say I’m not trying to contact anyone. Nor am I going on any expedition,” he said.

The American explained that he is currently in Iraq, where he’d been for a month, and shared a video dated March 26th with Mongabay that he had sent to the prosecutor’s office in which he can be seen on the streets of a Middle Eastern country.

Tonkin also invited Mongabay to stay with his missionary group in the city of Atalaia do Norte and Benjamnin Constant municipality, near the reserve. “You can actually get to know the missionaries whom you report about. You can follow our footsteps,” he wrote.

Lucas Marubo told Mongaby that he believed that Tonkin had most likely left Brazil for Iraq, having learned of the complaints made to the prosecutor’s office. But Lucas Marubo added that Tonkin’s fellow evangelical pastor, Josiash Mcintyre, recently came to the Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley Union (Univaja) office and harassed people there.

“He was very aggressive; he wanted to physically fight with us,” Lucas Marubu said. Mcintyre did not respond to Mongabay’s attempts to contact him via social media.

In its online mission statement, Tonkin’s organization, Frontier International Missions, lists “mission work among unreached indigenous people across the world” and describes his work of eleven years in the Amazon basin as “indigenous church planting and church growth mission work.”

The complaint against Tonkin is the latest episode in a series of controversial developments involving foreign Christian religious groups aiming to evangelize Brazil’s isolated indigenous tribes.

The alleged contact and conversion plans by Tonkin’s Frontier International, and Ethnos360 come as Brazil’s indigenous communities prepare to facedown the country’s looming COVID-19 crisis, amid increasing violent attacks and land invasions by loggers, land grabbers and illegal miners, during the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro who is moving to open indigenous reserves to mining and agribusiness.

Banner image caption: Korubo indigenous people living in the Javari Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of FUNAI/Globo.

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