Enlarge /. Members of an uncontacted tribe in Acre, northwestern Brazil, 2009.
Ethnos360, an Arizona-based "Aviation Missionary" organization, recently announced the deployment of a new helicopter to provide supply and transportation for its operations in remote western Brazil.
The organization, which aims to "reach the last tribe no matter where that tribe is", previously operated with a bush plane in western Brazil. This has restricted its activities due to approval requirements and the cost of building and maintaining an airstrip. The helicopter, the organization writes, "will open the door to reach ten more people who are in extreme isolation." The current pandemic is questionable at all times, but it creates a context in which the decision to contact these groups is particularly insensitive.
leave us alone
This region in western Brazil is home to the world's highest number of uncontacted tribes, according to Survival International, a non-profit organization that campaigns for indigenous land rights and the right of uncontacted groups to remain so. Survival International points out hostile behavior of uncontacted people, such as pointing arrows at planes and leaving crossed spears in the forest, as evidence that these groups do not want to interact with outsiders.
The unsolicited interaction with uncontacted tribes is currently violating the Brazilian constitution of 1988 and the policies of FUNAI, the Brazilian government agency for indigenous peoples. However, the recent appointment of evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopez Dias to head the FUNAI division for isolated and recently contacted tribes has led to speculation that these guidelines may no longer be followed. This would make room for part of the expansion of mining and agriculture to indigenous territory under the Jair Bolsonaro government.
But Dias spent ten years as a missionary for the New Tribes Mission, which later changed its name to Ethnos360 in the United States, but still operates under the original name in other regions.
In the past, contact with outsiders has proven disastrous to indigenous people for a variety of reasons, with disease being one of the most important threats to which it is exposed. Just as COVID-19 will spread rapidly in the current world population because no one is immune to the virus, uncontacted groups are very susceptible to new diseases that are introduced by outsiders. This has led to high mortality rates from diseases such as measles and malaria, which are transmitted by local mosquitoes only after they have been introduced by people from other regions.
Influenza has proven to be a particularly serious threat, according to an indigenous health specialist, Douglas Rodrigues. In a recent interview with the journalist agency Amazônia Real about the dangers of COVID-19 for indigenous peoples in Brazil, Rodrigues pointed out respiratory diseases as the "greatest villains" in the history of disease-related deaths of indigenous peoples. The corona virus, he said, causes another of these malignant respiratory diseases.
There are currently 621 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Brazil, although like in many other countries it is likely that the actual number of cases will exceed the number of cases confirmed by tests. Indigenous peoples are generally vulnerable to the pandemic through travel between cities and villages and through contact between villages, Amazônia Real reports.
Infectious diseases biologist Jessie Abbate told Ars that "traveling for unnecessary purposes is completely irresponsible behavior right now." This endangers both people along the route and those at the destination, she said. And traveling to remote communities, especially uncontacted ones, "would knowingly expose a population to a disease that their culture of isolation from other people would otherwise protect them from."
According to a press release from Ethnos360, operations with the new helicopter in Brazil may have started on January 31. The organization has additional activities in remote regions of Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Pacific. Ethnos360 did not respond to Ars Technica's request to comment on whether the operation was halted in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Latest news from Ethnos360 and the related organization New Tribes Mission, despite a public statement by the CEO on March 19, does not include any new travel prevention guidelines. The pandemic does not mention this statement.
With increasing evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted before symptoms appear and with a global lack of testing, "everyone should assume that they have been exposed," said Abbate. This means that anyone who travels to an unaffected community can "end up as a zero patient".