American Missionary Put Lives of Remote Tribe at 'Risk' by Trying to Make Contact, Authorities Say

An American missionary stationed in Brazil is accused of putting the lives of a previously uncontacted indigenous tribe at risk, government officials have said.

Steve Campbell, a missionary with the Greene Baptist Church in Maine, is being investigated by FUNAI—a Brazilian government body tasked with protecting the interests of indigenous tribes living in the Brazilian Amazon—after he allegedly entered the territory of the Hi-Merimã tribe last month.

The Hi-Merimã tribe is one of a few dozen isolated communities in Brazil that have had almost no contact with the outside world. The tribe, which lives in the state of Amazonas, has previously rejected attempts at contact.

It is unclear what penalties Campbell may face, with federal prosecutors or police officials yet to be notified of his actions.

However, Survival International, an organization advocating for tribal peoples' rights, has reported that Campbell could even be tried for "genocide."

In a statement to Reuters, a FUNAI spokesperson said Campbell's actions represent "a case of rights violation and exposure to risk of death to [an] isolated indigenous population."

"Even if direct contact has not occurred, the probability of transmission of diseases to the isolated is high," the FUNAI spokesperson warned.

Campbell is said to have entered the territory of the Hi Merimã with the help of a local guide who had previously worked on an expedition with FUNAI, according to Survival International.

Both Campbell and his wife, Robin, are listed as missionaries on the website of the Greene Baptist Church, which Newsweek has not been able to reach for comment. "Their work is to help with medical, mechanical and countless other ministry opportunities," the website states.

Campbell's apparent decision to approach the Hi Merimã tribe comes just two months after another American missionary, John Allen Chau, was killed by members of the remote Sentinelese tribe after attempting to approach them in a bid to convert them to Christianity.

Chau, 27, had repeatedly tried to make contact with the residents of the North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean before his death, despite knowing the tribe had previously shunned all contact with the outside world. In letters to his family members, he asked loved ones not to "blame the natives if I am killed."

Responding to reports of Campbell's arrest, Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, said: "Fundamentalist Christian Americans must be stopped from this primitive urge to contact previously uncontacted tribes."

"It may lead to the martyrdom they seek, but always ends up killing tribespeople," he said.

Groups like Survival International have long warned of the devastating impacts that outside intervention have on remote communities, including the risks of disease and exploitation. Many indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon have already seen their homes destroyed by colonialism, logging and mining operations and foreign diseases.

Under new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, the threat to indigenous land is only expected to grow, with Brazil's new leader vowing to open up protected land for economic exploitation and refusing to dedicate even "one centimeter" to indigenous groups or quilombolas, the descendants of runaway slaves.

Neither FUNAI or the U.S. Embassy in Brazil have immediately responded to a request for comment from Newsweek for this article.

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Drone view from the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve in Amazonas state, Brazil, on June 30, 2018. An American missionary has been accused of putting the lives of a remote indigenous tribe in Brazil at risk after he tried to make contact with them. MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty
American Missionary Put Lives of Remote Tribe at 'Risk' by Trying to Make Contact, Authorities Say | U.S.