With its wooden houses on stilts, narrow streets and open sewers, Atalaia do Norte has a disproportionate number of churches and missionaries for its 20,000 inhabitants.
The city is the gateway to the indigenous land of the Javari Valley, home to seven peoples and several isolated groups – the largest uncontacted population in the world.
At least 15 different denominations are represented in Atalaia. Among them are the Order of the Holy Cross, founded in the region by a Messianic leader from Minas Gerais, the more traditional fundamental Baptist Church, the Catholic Church, the Israelite Mission of the New Universal Covenant – who believes that Jesus -Christ was reincarnated in Peru. – and the American group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose newly built church is one of the largest in the city.
Atalaia do Norte attracts missionaries from the United States, Canada, Spain, South Korea, Argentina and other parts of Brazil. The fight for the hearts and minds of the people of Javari has been going on for decades but intensified in 2020, when the government of Jair Bolsonaro tasked former missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias with the isolated and recently contacted tribes in Funai, the government agency responsible for the protection of indigenous interests.
Bolsonaro, although a Catholic himself, has close ties to Brazil’s growing evangelical community.
Official policy is to avoid contact with the isolated tribes unless they initiate it or their survival is at stake. Previous encounters have been fatal, as these forest dwellers have no immunity to them. diseases common in the general population.
Yet the choice of a religious leader to manage relations with isolated peoples raised the disturbing prospect of evangelical missions in the rainforest. While neither Dias nor Bolsonaro have advocated openly to change the policy against contact, The Intercept audio obtained of an influential evangelical, Edward Mantoanelli Luz, claiming that Dias’ appointment was intended to achieve this goal.
Heavily criticized, Dias finally left his post in November, after nine months of work.
Bolsonaro’s empowerment of evangelists is part of a larger agenda to open the Amazon rainforest to mining, large-scale agriculture and livestock, at the expense of indigenous rights.
Retired army captain, he adheres to the state of mind of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) towards the Amazon. For the Brazilian military, indigenous territories are both a threat to national security, because they could initiate independence movements, and an obstacle to âprogressâ.
With his allies in Congress, Bolsonaro has tried to revise the demarcation rules for indigenous lands in order to stop and even cancel some of them.
Indigenous groups, organized under the banner Univaja (Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley), fought Dias’ approach in court and won a number of favorable verdicts.
In the religious arena, one of the main opponents of missionaries’ efforts to win over converts is Indigenous Minister Marcos Dunu Mayoruna, also known as Pepe.
Pepe, 43, who has long hair, wooden earrings and the body paint traditionally used by the inhabitants of Mayoruna, goes against the common image of Evangelical pastors in suits, ties, trousers of ceremony and closed shoes.
His message is clear: in his eyes, conversion should not mean abandoning indigenous culture, as has happened since colonial times, first with Catholics and more recently with Evangelicals.
Pepe welcomed us to a small indigenous longhouse with a cement floor and no walls, where on weekends he teaches the word of God to young Indians who have migrated to Atalaia do Norte. The structure contrasts with the solid buildings of Christian churches.
Pepe was born in a village of the Mayoruna (or MatsÃ©s), the most numerous people in the region, with approximately 4,200 inhabitants in Brazil and Peru. The contact of his people with whites took place under the previous generation, in 1969, through two American missionaries.
In a short time, Pepe tells us, the Mayoruna ceased to live in the malocas (large communal dwellings), swapped their nomadic way of life to live in villages, abandoned their traditional rituals and suffered from diseases brought by them. white.
When he was young and had alcohol addiction problems, Pepe dreamed that Jesus, speaking in the Mayoruna language, told him that he had to change his ways.
In 2001, Pepe moved to Rio de Janeiro, 3,500 km as the crow flies, as part of the Tikuna Project, created by indigenous evangelicals to provide their people with religious training. He spent eight years in Rio and was anointed as a pastor in an Assembly of God seminary. Then he returned to the valley of Javari.
At first, Pepe says, he became involved with Christian missionary organizations which, in order to justify their presence in indigenous villages, distorted and exaggerated information about the increasingly rare practice of infanticide.
In 2010, he appeared in the documentary âQuebrando o SilÃªncioâ (Breaking the Silence), telling a false story about his twin brother having been burned alive in the indigenous village when he was 10 years old. Pepe admits he lied, but says he never allowed his testimony to be included in the documentary.
The video, available on the Internet, was broadcast by the Atini Movement, founded by the Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves. The organization is accused of kidnapping children under the pretext of saving them from infanticide.
Pepe says he has been approached on several occasions by American missionaries seeking his help in contacting isolated Indians, but he refuses to cooperate.
âI always tell them that you can’t force anything. First, because the contact didn’t work. Today we live by the river. I would be okay if we native pastors brought education and health to these isolated peoples, but that’s not what these missionaries want. They want to make contact themselves and want their own names to appear as those who made the first contact, âhe says.
Pepe’s goal in Atalaia is to provide housing for dozens of young indigenous people who leave their villages to complete their schooling. Many of them end up getting involved in alcohol and drugs. To escape these evils, they end up being drawn to evangelical churches, where they are encouraged to give up traditional practices such as the use of ayahuasca, caiÃ§uma (fermented cassava drink), snuff, and body adornments.
Two of Pepe’s nephews attend the Christian Congregation of Brazil, which follows conservative customs, with separate entrances for men and women. After being converted, they wear their hair short and go to church in closed-toe shoes, slacks, and dress shirts.
âI tell them: do not take what you have learned in church here in your villages. One of them says he will wear a jacket and I ask him: how are you going to buy it? How will you use it in the village? If you are a Mayoruna and you become a Christian, you don’t change. This is what you should bring back to the village. Are you going to change people’s food, the way they live in the village? You can not do this.
American missionary Andrew Tonkin, better known as AndrÃ©, is an example of what Pepe faces.
Obsessed with contact with isolated Indians, Tonkin spent two years, between 2010 and 2013, living and traveling in the riparian community of SÃ£o Rafael, on the ItaquaÃ River.
The location was strategic. Located about two hours by boat from Atalaia, the small community built on stilts sits before the native land borders of the Javari Valley. This is where a group of isolated Indians began to roam frequently during the 1990s.
AndrÃ© lived a double life in SÃ£o Rafael. In the community, he held services, fished and lived side by side with the inhabitants of the village. âHe came to do nothing but preach the word of the Lord. I haven’t heard of the Indians, âexplains health worker Maria Pereira da Gama, 71, from SÃ£o Rafael.
At the same time, he tried to make contact with the isolated Indians. âI went twice with AndrÃ© in search of the Korubos. He wanted to bring the word of God to them. He used to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if they kill me, I want to be among them. He wanted to die with them, âsays Laurimar Alvez, 45, alias Caboclo, who lives in the community.
After SÃ£o Rafael, Tonkin, then linked to the missionary organization Frontier International, settled in the rural colony of Estaca Zero, near Benjamin Constant (in the state of Amazonas), another strategic place – and less guarded – for illegal entry into native land.
From there, he seems to have organized a new expedition in 2019 in search of the isolated Indians. It was only discovered because the Matis Indians came to their camp.
Last year, following a lawsuit brought by Unijava, the Federal Court banned Tonkin and two other missionaries, Josiah Mcintyre and Wilson Kannenberg, as well as the Mission of New Tribes of Brazil (MNTB), to enter indigenous territory.
In an email interview, Tonkin, who claims to have moved to the Middle East, said he had worked in Brazil for a decade with all people and races, including Colombians, Peruvians and peoples. indigenous. Regarding the isolated tribes, he said he explained his point of view to the Attorney General of Brazil.
âI will continue to consider the Supreme Sovereign and especially the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. He transformed me, he changed me backwards. He washed away all evil and sin from me, removed a hard heart and replaced it with a new creation. Hope you know him. He’s the best friend you have. He’s coming back for those who know him. Prepare yourself, âhe wrote.
“They are following the old script,” Pepe says, citing five American missionaries killed in 1956 by the Huaorani in Ecuador. âThey want to die here and make their names known. They want to become martyrs.
This report is part of The Amazon under Bolsonaro, a collaboration between Folha De Sao Paulo and Climate Home News. The text was translated from Portuguese by Clara Allain. All photos by Lalo de Almeida. Image of the hero: A disciple of the Brotherhood of the Cross prays in front of the church.