Sydney Possuelo is among the last, and certainly the most famous, of the sertanistas—men who make a living by conducting dangerous first-contact missions with remote indigenous peoples of the Amazon. For the Insights story "A Prime Directive for the Last Americans," appearing in the May 2007 issue of Scientific American, he sat down with science writer Claudio Angelo to discuss his reasons for a noninterference strategy to protect the tribes from civilization. Here is an expanded interview, translated from Portuguese.
There used to be a time when the philosophy was that contact had to be done before civilization eventually reached indigenous tribes and they all died. Isn't protecting isolated tribes just a way to postpone the inevitable assimilation and subsequent extinction?
I don't know if it is inevitable. Those things happen because of a desire from us civilized peoples to go there and make contact, whatever the reason: to conquer land, grow soybeans, build a road. Those motives can be controlled.
The prevalent ideology before FUNAI [the Brazilian agency charged with protecting the Indians] was the idea that we should go fetch the isolated peoples and bring them the benefits of civilization, since civilization was a good of mankind. It belonged to everyone, non-Indians and Indians alike. So all parts of mankind have the right to benefit from civilization—provided that they want to. When [the first sertanista, Cândido] Rondon (1865-1958), got old and left the service, the SPI [Indian Protection Service, the predecessor to FUNAI] entered a terrible phase. The organization got to the point of selling indigenous lands with the Indians inside.
Why would a protection service sell Indian lands?
By then, many of the contact expeditions were funded by local interests. People who have the rubber forests, the seringais, would call on the SPI and say: "Look, there's a bunch of Indians on my land—on my land—and they're bothering me, so you have to come down and take them away." That contact philosophy endured well into the 1970's. I've made contact with seven groups. And it was through those contacts that I came to realize how bad it was for them.
What does contact do to the Indians?
First the whole visual thing. When you are in an expedition, in the bush, you have to keep an eye on the guys who are there. The guys fight you with bows and arrows, they kill you, they speak up to you, they assault you. But you eventually make contact. One year later they are slack, emaciated, bowing their heads and begging for food and money by the roadside, more and more dependent on you and on the state. They come into contact with you and start to die off like flies. Everything, everything, everything plays against them. They become so subordinate to us, for we break up their education, their health, their means of work, their mythical system. They become outcasts. For how long? Well, some of them have been outcasts for 500 years. Please name to me a single tribe in the last 500 years that became better off after contact. There is none! So, seeing all that, I came to develop a new method of work, and to work for a decade before being eventually heard and creating within FUNAI a department dedicated to the protection of isolated peoples.
Was it a "Eureka!" moment when you realized that the best thing to do for the indigeous tribes was to avoid contact with them?
No, it wasn't quite like the road to Damascus, where Paul saw the light. It was a process in which I observed a lot, thought up a lot. Then I introduced a change in the way of doing things. We shouldn't go after those peoples to make contact. Contact is harmful to them. We are scourges on those peoples. So I proposed that we created a department for isolated peoples, because it can't be overstated how important this moment [first contact] is for them, and it should be done very carefully, by well-prepared people, and only as a last resort. We should avoid contact by all means, protect their environment, demarcate their lands and let them live their traditional lives.