Todd Levan / AP
Environmentalists in Brazil are mourning the death of a leading expert on contactless tribes in the Amazon, who was killed by an arrow that struck him in the chest.
Friends of Rieli Francisco say he died in the rainforest while on a mission to protect an isolated local group from a possible hostile encounter with outsiders.
It happened on the edge of the Uru Eu Wau Wau Reserve in the western Brazilian province of Rondonia, an area where the forest has been hit hard by invasions by illegal loggers and miners, as well as livestock farmers who set fire to clear the land.
The murder sparked speculation that Francisco was shot by the contactless group after being mistaken for an invader. His death on Wednesday was witnessed by police officer Paulo Ricardo Bressa, whom Francisco asked to accompany him on his expedition to the area.
Bressa says Francisco climbed a hill to see if he could check for isolated tribal people moving through the area.
“We heard the sound of an arrow hitting his chest. He shouted, pulled out the arrow and went back. He managed to escape 50 to 60 meters and then collapsed, lifeless,” Bressa said in an audio message published by Brazilian media.
Francisco, 56, spent his career at the Brazilian government’s local affairs agency, Funai, earning a reputation as a tireless defender of isolated local groups and their forest lands.
Survival International, an organization that campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples, described his death as a “tragic and immeasurable loss.”
“He refused to accept the violent greed that destroyed the Amazon rainforest and its best guardians,” it is said, “He worked tirelessly to protect the lands of the contactless tribes from outsiders.
“He has dedicated his life to this, working on the front lines to combat the illegal invasions of loggers, ranchers and miners who threaten to destroy the most vulnerable peoples on the planet.”
Francisco’s death has heightened forest advocates’ concerns about policies pursued by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who advocates for the integration of the local population into a wider Brazilian society and wants to use the Amazon’s natural resources.
They accuse Bolsonaro of inciting violence in the Amazon region by cutting down on government environmental agencies and encouraging groups intending to invade local lands. As proof, environmental activists point to the number of fires that are now burning in the Brazilian Amazon. In the first nine days of this month, satellites used by the National Space Research Institute in Brazil detected 12,412 fires – more than twice the number in the same period last year. Many of them were created by illegal breeders who clear already deforested land.