Executing Possuelo's plan, however, means identifying the indigenous groups before miners, loggers and others find them--encounters that could lead to long-lasting, deadly skirmishes, as in the case of the Korubo people of the Javari Valley, which lies near the Peruvian border. First contacted in 1972, they violently resisted intruders and over the decades had clubbed to death many who ventured into their territories. In 1996 Possuelo managed to establish peaceful encounters with one Korubo clan, in part by singing aloud (enemies come in silence) and by offering gifts. Despite having known the clan for many years now, Possuelo still considers them unpredictable; he has kept anthropologists away, he has said, for their own safety. He himself will not bother to contact a larger Korubo group deeper in the jungle, feeling that they are remote enough that they will not meet outsiders.
The noninterference strategy has gained worldwide approval. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2006, incorporates the right to nonassimilation. Despite that, the policy faces critics in Brazil, who see such protection as an additional burden to taxpayers that only postpones inevitable integration. "Of course, you're buying time," says Márcio Santilli, head of Brasília's Socio-Environmental Institute and a former president of FUNAI. "But buying time is central to mitigating the impacts of contact."
And time is running out for those Indians. Brazil has demarcated less than a dozen lands with isolated peoples. Possuelo and his colleagues have identified 22 isolated groups in the Amazon, although FUNAI believes that the true number might be closer to 68, based on aerial surveys and witness accounts. Some live in previously protected indigenous lands, some in areas that are right in the range of agricultural expansion.
In the other six South American countries with isolated peoples--Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela--the prospect is even bleaker. "The issue is all but unknown to them," Possuelo states. "And it is no use to undertake protection policies here if indigenous peoples are not protected across the border and get killed on the other side."
In 2005, before leaving FUNAI, Possuelo organized a meeting in the Amazon city of Belém that gave birth to an alliance for the protection of isolated peoples in the seven countries. The alliance, consisting of state attorneys, environmental defense groups, anthropologists and indigenous organizations, called on their governments to identify and protect their indigenous charges. "The idea here is to raise public consciousness in the first place," he says. "Then we'll be able to talk about public policy." The alliance has been facing an unexpected challenge, though--from indigenous peoples themselves. "In Ecuador last year, contacted Indians killed 20 isolated Indians," says Marcelo dos Santos, who took over Possuelo's old FUNAI post.
Possuelo agrees that the isolated groups may not last much longer. But pointing at several figurines of Don Quixote that he keeps in his living room, he says he has not given up. "The fate of those peoples will depend ultimately on our choices," he argues. "Those peoples are the last Americans. We are indebted to them."
This article was originally published with the title Prime Directive for the Last Americans.