A Defender Of Indigenous Tribes Has Been Killed By An Isolated Group In The Amazon

An open cattle pasture area near Jamari National Forest in Rondonia state, Brazil. Rondonia has become one of the most deforested places in the Amazon. PARALAXIS/Shutterstock

A leading advocate for uncontacted people in the Amazon has been killed by an isolated tribe whose lands are being invaded and destroyed. 

Rieli Franciscato, who worked for the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, was killed after being struck in the chest by an arrow on Wednesday, September 9 near the edge of the Uru Eu Wau Wau reservation in the western Brazilian state of Rondônia.

FUNAI announced the death on Wednesday, noting "Rieli dedicated his life to the indigenous cause.”

Survival International, an organization that campaigns for tribal peoples' rights, reports that Franciscato was the coordinator of a FUNAI team tasked with protecting uncontacted tribes’ territories in Rondônia state. He had recently been called to the border of the Uru Eu Wau Wau tribe’s territory following reports that ranchers, loggers, and miners were starting to come into conflict with members of an isolated group. A video captured on the day of his death shows a rancher shouting abuse at indigenous people approaching his ranch. 

Witnesses said that Franciscato was investigating reports of a tribe known as the "isolated group of the Cautario River" who were previously recognized as "a peaceful group," photojournalist Gabriel Uchida told AFP news agency. Unfortunately, the uncontacted group had no means of distinguishing Franciscato and his team from others and they were wrongly identified as a threat. They came under attack from a group of five men and an arrow fatally struck Franciscato in the chest. He was taken to the nearest hospital but later died. 

“Rieli dedicated his life to the last second doing what he loved most: fighting for the peoples of the forest. An excellent, serious, and dedicated professional, [he will leave] an impeccable legacy in the Amazon for decades,” Kanindé, an NGO that was founded by Franciscato in the 1980s, said in a statement.

The Uru Eu Wau Wau is a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers that live in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. They were contacted by government agents in 1981 when the official policy was to forcibly contact uncontacted tribal peoples. The group is known to be neighbors with some indigenous tribes that have remained uncontacted by the outside world, who they call “Jururei” meaning “brave ones.” The Uru Eu Wau Wau’s land rights were officially recognized in 1991 and the group has largely been left alone by government authorities since, but recent years have seen increasing conflict in the area with ranchers, loggers, miners, and others who wish to exploit their land for profit. 

Survival International says the "tragic" death is inseparable from the wider problems facing indigenous people in this part of the world and beyond.

“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,” Sarah Shenker, Survival’s Senior Researcher, said in a statement

“The last thing Rieli would want is for the government and the invaders to use his death as an excuse to target the Uru Eu Wau Wau territory even more aggressively, or to make forced contact with the uncontacted Indians. This would be fatal and any attempts will be met with immediate opposition from indigenous peoples and their allies around the world.”

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