A leading expert on Amazon tribes was shot dead with an arrow fired by indigenous people while approaching them in a remote area of Brazil.
Rieli Franciscato, 56, was the head of a programme to protect indigenous groups that have little or no contact with the outside world.
He died on Wednesday in the Seringueiras region, a remote municipality in the northern state of Rondonia, said a statement from the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs office, FUNAI, where he worked.
Witnesses said he was shot above the heart with an arrow while monitoring recent appearances by a tribe known as the ‘Cautario River isolated group,’ according to a photojournalist in the region, Gabriel Uchida.
Rieli was accompanied by a police patrol and a former head of FUNAI said their presence could have triggered the attack.
Rieli Franciscato, 56, a government official and leading expert on isolated Amazon tribes, who was killed by an arrow fired by indigenous people on Wednesday
Franciscato was killed in the Seringueiras region, a remote municipality in the northern state of Rondonia (pictured), close to the border of Bolivia
The hunter-gatherers of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe lives in the mountains of the Amazon rainforest but its population has slumped after road-building and tin-mining projects brought conflict and disease to its 1.8million-acre reservation.
First contacted by Brazilian government officials in 1981, the tribe is thought to consist of fewer than 1,000 hunter-gatherers living in nine separate villages.
The population is estimated to have fallen by more than half in the last four decades after intrusion by miners and settlers, especially after the discovery of massive tin reserves in 1991.
The area has also been affected by fires and deforestation, with Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro pushing for development on indigenous lands.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, who speak some Portuguese, are aware of Bolsonaro’s policies and younger tribe members have equipped themselves with drones to spy on invaders.
Older villagers have been known to suggest ‘an arrow to the leg’ to keep out loggers, who are sometimes arrested by federal police when the tribe manages to alert authorities.
The tribe is highly vulnerable to diseases spread by viruses and bacteria and has very little access to healthcare, according to Minority Rights Group International.
The Kaninde foundation co-founded by Franciscato says the tribe is facing ‘invasions by land grabbers, miners and loggers that threaten the lives of the indigenous people’.
Kaninde has also equipped the tribe a laptop, a high-definition camera, a waterproof camera, walkie-talkies and a GPS device. The plan is for each village to have at least three people capable of using the devices.
Hundreds of people intruded on Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory in 2019, according to Amnesty International which says that illegal cattle farms in the area are fuelling the destruction of the rainforest.
One tribe member, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.was murdered in April with four blows to the head, but the killer’s identity was not known.
Officials in the state of Rondonia have been accused of turning a blind eye as land is taken from indigenous people near the Bolivian border.
In other areas of Brazil, invasions of protected land have led to violent clashes, while the coronavirus has also caused havoc among Amazon tribes.
When the party came under fire with arrows, they ran to take shelter behind a vehicle, but Rieli was hit above the heart, witnesses said.
‘He cried out, pulled the arrow from his chest, ran 50 meters and collapsed, lifeless,’ a policeman who accompanied the expedition said in an audio posted on social media.
He was taken to the nearest hospital, but died soon after.
The tribe ‘are known as a peaceful group,’ Uchida told the AFP news agency.
‘The last time they appeared in the region was in June…. It was a larger group, very peaceful. They even left presents at someone’s house,’ he said.
‘This time, there were just five armed men – a war party. That means something must have happened to make them seek ‘revenge.”
Such groups have sometimes lashed out violently when illegal miners or poachers encroach on their land.
Uchida said there were some reports of such activity in the region.
The indigenous rights group Survival International said Franciscato’s death and the appearance of tribal people on the edge of nearby ranches was ‘almost certainly a response to the immense pressure they and their forest are under’.
‘Most of the forest surrounding the reserve has been destroyed and occupied by ranchers and loggers, who are also targeting the reserve itself,’ the group said.
‘Last year numerous fires were started outside and inside the reserve, and this year the ranchers have threatened to burn more of the territory.’
Sarah Shenker, a senior researcher for the group, called the expert’s death a ‘tragic and immeasurable loss for uncontacted tribes’.
She added: ‘The uncontacted Indians may well have mistaken Rieli, one of their closest allies, for one of their many enemies who threaten their survival.
‘They’ve been pushed to the edge and there’s only one solution: protect their territory from all invasions so they can survive and thrive.’
Isolated tribes’ first contacts with the outside world have often been disastrous in the past, marred by deadly violence, devastating outbreaks of disease and the breakdown of their social structures.
Rieli led an operation at FUNAI called the Uru Eu Wau Wau Ethno-Environmental Protection Front, whose mission was to protect isolated groups.
FUNAI declined to say how he died, but officials and a journalist in the region confirmed the details of the incident on Thursday.
His death comes at a time when indigenous people in Brazil are under increasing threat from invasions by illegal land grabbers, loggers and gold miners, emboldened by the policies of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro who wants to develop the Amazon and reduce the size of indigenous reservations.
The Kaninde Ethno-Environmental Defense Association he helped found in the 1980s said the indigenous group had no ability to distinguish between a friend or a foe from the outside world.
Rieli Franciscato helped found the Kaninde Ethno-Environmental Defense Association in the 1980s, which works to protect the Amazon’s indigenous population
Indigenous men of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe from the same region in which Franciscato was killed hold bows and arrows in an indigenous reservation. Indigenous people in the region and their way of life has become increasingly threatened from the outside
‘We are feeling bewildered by so many deaths in this Brazil that no longer respects indigenous rights,’ said Ivaneide Cardozo, Franciscato’s friend and co-founder of the Kaninde association.
Paying tribute to Franciscato, the foundation said described him as an ‘excellent, serious and dedicated professional’ who ‘dedicated his life to the last second doing what he loved most: fighting for the peoples of the forest.’
The foundation says the tribe is facing ‘invasions by land grabbers, miners and loggers that threaten the lives of the indigenous people’.
Kaninde has also equipped the tribe a laptop, a high-definition camera, a waterproof camera, walkie-talkies and a GPS device.
The leading authority on Brazil’s remaining isolated tribes and a former head of FUNAI, Sydney Possuelo, said Bolsonaro had kept his campaign promise to destroy the agency that is meant to defend rights of indigenous people.
Possuelo said the government had defunded FUNAI and left it without staff needed for security at its isolated posts just as increasing land invasions increase the risk of violent clashes.
FUNAI official Ricardo Lopes Dias said ”Rieli dedicated his life to the indigenous cause. He had more than three decades of service, and leaves an immense legacy for the protection of these peoples’
A member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe looks on in an area deforested by invaders in the village of Alto Jaru, at the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reservation. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro wants to develop the Amazon and reduce the size of indigenous reservations
‘Rieli was a calm, methodical, soft-spoken man who knew the dangers very well, but he was alone and so he went to ask the police to accompany him,’ Possuelo said.
Invasions of protected land have led to violent clashes, while the coronavirus has also caused havoc in among Amazon tribes who are vulnerable to the spread of disease even without a pandemic.
Brazil’s presidency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bolsonaro has repeatedly proposed the need to integrate the indigenous, who he has described as living ‘like cave men,’ into broader Brazilian society.
The Brazilian Amazon is home to at least 100 isolated tribes, more than anywhere else in the world, according to Survival International.
‘Rieli dedicated his life to the indigenous cause,’ said FUNAI official Ricardlo Lopes Dias.
‘He had more than three decades of service, and leaves an immense legacy for the protection of these peoples.’
A handout photo issued by the World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF) of an area of illegal deforestation in the in the indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory in Rondonia