BRASILIA (Reuters) - Opposition lawmakers called on Brazil's Congress on Thursday to reject a proposal by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to open indigenous reservations to commercial mining, saying it endangered some of the world's most isolated forest inhabitants.
Backed by Sydney Possuelo and Antenor Vaz, two leading authorities on Brazil's isolated tribes in the Amazon, three left-wing lawmakers urged the speaker of the lower chamber to keep his promise to shelve the government's bill.
They said Bolsonaro was dismantling state protections for Brazil's 900,000 tribal people built up over decades and has turned the government-run indigenous affairs agency, known as Funai, into a tool of private farming and mining interests.
"I have never seen the 200 indigenous tribes in such danger," said Possuelo, a former head of Funai who in the 1990s helped fix the boundaries of the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, Brazil's first and largest reservation, which is the size of Portugal.
Bolsonaro has said he wants to assimilate Brazil's indigenous people into Brazilian society and plans to develop the Amazon economically, arguing that the tribes live in dirt poverty like "animals" in a zoo.
Possuelo said the government has reversed a policy dating from 1986 that sought to shelter isolated tribes from contact with Brazilian society to prevent their being decimated by illness and threatened by illegal poachers and loggers.
Brazil has the largest number of isolated and uncontacted indigenous groups, 114 of the 185 known to exist in South America, said Vaz, who warned of the risk of ethnocide.
"Funai has been taken by assault by people who serve the interests of farming and mining lobbies," said minority leader Jandira Feghali, a congresswoman from Rio de Janeiro. She said the state has a duty to protect Brazil's indigenous peoples.
Possuelo condemned last week's appointment by Bolsonaro's government of an evangelical former missionary to run Funai's department of isolated and recently contacted indigenous tribes department, which he created in 1992.
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday filed a lawsuit to block the appointment, citing conflict of interest in having someone in the position who was linked to a missionary group that seeks to convert "unreached people" to Christianity.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Dan Grebler)