RIO DE JANEIRO – The sightings of the isolated tribes that Rieli Franciscato dedicated his career to protect are rare and fraught with danger.
So in June, when a handful of undressed natives emerged from the forest in the state of Rondônia and approached a small village, Mr. Franciscato, a Brazilian government official specializing in uncontacted tribes, took action.
His frantic efforts in recent months to keep Rondônia’s isolated tribes safe and to try to understand why they had begun venturing out of the Amazon rainforest ended Wednesday when Franciscatus was shot in the chest by an arrow and killed.
Moises Assaup Kampe, 35, a friend of Mr. Franciscato who was with him that day, said he walked in the footsteps of the tribe’s men in the rainforest, following the most recent sighting by residents of a rural area near the city of Seringueiras.
“We were looking for information about where they came from and trying to see if they had forgotten anything,” Kampe said.
Suddenly, Signor Franciscato shouted. Mr. Kampe watched in horror as his friend pulled out the tip of a five-foot-high bamboo arrow that had pierced his chest.
“He pulled it out and started running,” said Mr. Kampe. “He ran about 50 meters, passed out and fell to the ground.”
The Brazilian Amazon rainforest is home to dozens of indigenous tribes who have chosen to remain in isolation. Since the 1980s, the Brazilian government has been trying to prevent outsiders, including missionaries, from making contact with those tribes.
Such encounters in the past have been devastating for indigenous peoples, lacking immunity to common pathogens.
Maintaining the no-contact policy is the responsibility of the National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, the federal agency in which Mr. Franciscato worked for more than three decades.
His mission has become increasingly difficult in recent years as loggers and miners invaded indigenous territories in violation of federal law, usually without consequences. President Jair Bolsonaro, those in favor of the greater opening of the Amazon to development, defined the indigenous territories as archaic and an obstacle to economic growth. He likened communities living in the forest to animals in a zoo.
Although FUNAI’s budget has been reduced, with the closure of many of its branch offices and the reduction of its ranks in recent years, Franciscato has remained steadfast in his belief that the last few humans living in isolation deserved protection.
“He was an excellent person,” said Mr. Kampe. “Everything he did was motivated by a desire to protect isolated communities and uphold their right to a dignified life.”
Ivaneide Cardozo, an indigenous rights activist in Rondônia, said she and Mr. Franciscato often talked about the dangers of what they both considered a labor of love. Mr. Franciscato, he said, feared he could be killed by the often armed loggers or a member of the tribe if he were mistaken for an invader.
In June, when Mr. Franciscato learned that a handful of members of the isolated tribe had approached a ranch, he devised a plan to keep them safe. The possibility that one of those people could be exposed to the coronavirus and spread it among relatives was the worst case scenario. So Mr. Franciscato begged the villagers in the area to avoid close contact with the men of the tribe at all costs.
“‘I will do everything in my power to protect those natives and not allow them to get in touch,'” Ms. Cardozo recalled telling her.
But he saw it as a tall order, he said, since Mr. Franciscato had effectively become a solo operation following several tribes over a large area. “‘The problem is, I’m all alone, I don’t have a team and I need people,'” Ms. Cardozo said recently.
Mrs. Cardozo said that Mr. Franciscato was tireless while studying the tribes from a distance. The work requires getting close enough to gather clues as to how these communities are doing by studying their movements, their diets, and all the tools they leave behind.
“He took note of every single thing,” Ms. Cardozo said. “Time too.”
FUNAI president Marcelo Xavier called him an “exemplary” public official. “He has devoted more than 30 years to the protection of isolated indigenous peoples,” Mr. Xavier said in a video message.
When the group emerged from the forest in June, villagers said the tribe’s men left a piece of meat and took a chicken from a ranch. This was interpreted as a friendly exchange.
When Mr. Franciscato came to see those men of the tribe a few days later, he beckoned them back to the forest, Mrs. Cardozo said. He believed that was the safest way as long as a highly contagious pandemic was spreading across Brazil.
That fear is what prompted him to rush back to the field this week after hearing that five naked tribes had emerged from the jungle in another part of Rondonia, walking in a V-shaped formation.
Dhuliana Pereira, 18, was gathering wood near her home when the men approached carrying bows and arrows.
“My dad started screaming,” he said. “We didn’t know what their reaction would be.”
A few hours later, Mr. Franciscato passed by and interviewed all the villagers about what they had seen. Then he set off into the woods, making new footprints.
A few minutes later, Ms. Pereira saw Mr. Franciscato’s body on a wheelbarrow, which friends used to transport him in a police vehicle that rushed him to the hospital.
“He seemed unconscious,” he said. “I didn’t see any signs of life.”