go away —
Missionary group Ethnos360 announces new helicopter plans
Ethnos360, an “aviation missionary” organization based in Arizona, has recently announced the use of a new helicopter to provide supplies and transport to its operations in remote western Brazil.
The organization, which aims to reach “the last tribe regardless of where that tribe might be,” has previously operated in western Brazil with a bush plane. This has restricted its activities because of the permit requirements and expense of building and maintaining an airstrip. The helicopter, the organization writes, will “open the door to reach ten additional people groups living in extreme isolation.” While questionable at any time, the current pandemic creates a context in which the decision to contact these groups is especially insensitive.
Leave us alone
This region of western Brazil is home to the highest number of uncontacted tribes in the world, according to nonprofit Survival International, which campaigns for the land rights of indigenous people as well as the right for uncontacted groups to remain so. Survival International points to uncontacted people’s hostile behaviors, like pointing arrows at aircraft and leaving crossed spears in the forest, as evidence that these groups do not want to interact with outsiders.
Unsolicited interaction with uncontacted tribes is currently in violation of the 1988 Brazilian constitution as well as the policies of FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s agency for indigenous peoples. However, the recent appointment of evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopez Dias to head up FUNAI’s department for isolated and recently contacted tribes has provoked speculation that these policies may no longer be upheld. In part, this would make way for expansion of mining and farming into indigenous territory under Jair Bolsonaro’s government.
Historically, contact with outsiders has proven disastrous for indigenous people for various reasons, with disease being one of the most important dangers they face. Just as COVID-19 is set to spread rapidly through the current global population because no one has immunity to the virus, uncontacted groups are highly susceptible to new diseases introduced by outsiders. This has resulted in high death rates from diseases like measles and malaria, the latter of which is carried by local mosquitoes only after being introduced by people from other regions.
Influenza has proved a particularly potent danger, according to indigenous health specialist Douglas Rodrigues. In a recent interview with journalism agency Amazônia Real on the dangers of COVID-19 to indigenous people in Brazil, Rodrigues pointed to respiratory diseases as the “greatest villains” of the history of disease-related deaths of indigenous people. The coronavirus, he said, causes one more of these villainous respiratory diseases.
Brazil currently has 621 confirmed cases of coronavirus, although as in many other countries, it is likely that the true number of cases outstrips the number of cases confirmed by testing. Indigenous people in general are vulnerable to the pandemic through travel between cities and villages, as well as contact between villages, reports Amazônia Real.
Infectious disease biologist Jessie Abbate told Ars that “traveling for unnecessary purposes right now is completely irresponsible behavior.” Doing so puts people along the route at risk, as well as those in the destination location, she said. And traveling to remote communities, particularly uncontacted ones, would be “knowingly exposing a population to a disease that they would otherwise be protected against by their culture of isolation from other humans.”
According to an Ethnos360 news release, operations with the new helicopter in Brazil may have begun as early as January 31st. The organization has additional operations in remote regions of Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Pacific. Ethnos360 did not respond to Ars Technica’s requests for comment on whether their operations have been halted in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Recent news posts from Ethnos360 and related organization New Tribes Mission do not indicate any new policy on preventing travel, despite a public statement from the CEO dated as recently as March 19th. This statement does not mention the pandemic.
With mounting evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted prior to the appearance of symptoms and with a global lack of testing, “everyone should assume they have been exposed,” said Abbate. That means that anyone who travels to an unaffected community “could end up as patient zero.”