Prime Directive for the Last Americans

Saving Amazonia's indigenous peoples means not meeting them, insists Sydney Possuelo--a policy of noninterference he hopes to extend, even if others hate it

NICOLAS REYNARD National Geographic Image Collection
The gray-bearded, balding man sips coffee in the kitchen of his apartment in Brasília, Brazil. With a blank stare, he ponders the future of the three things to which he has dedicated his life: "Everything dies at its own time. The forest dies, with it die the Indians, with them die the sertanistas." But at 67, Sydney Ferreira Possuelo acknowledges that the sertanistas, men who make a living out of protecting the isolated indigenous peoples in the Brazilian jungles, may be the first to go.

Counting Possuelo, only five members remain. They travel to the remotest corners of the Amazon rain forest to track down isolated tribes and contact them before miners, cattle ranchers, loggers and others do, usually at gunpoint. Their job is to divert development around those tribes, so as to keep them from sharing the usual bleak fate of indigenous Brazilians. But it has been 20 years since the last sertanista was hired. And most of the old school--that is, people who have actual contact experience--have either died or retired.

Possuelo has done neither, although he was fired from his position with Brazil's National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI) last year after publicly criticizing the remarks of its president, who stated that there might be too much land already in the hands of native Brazilians. Today he coordinates efforts through the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano, a nongovernmental organization that is part of a multinational alliance dedicated to the protection of isolated tribes.

Possuelo had helped initiate a sea change in federal policy toward indigenous tribes by persuading the government that the natives should be left alone, to live exactly as they have since prehistoric times. The decision to make contact should be left to them. The prevailing wisdom throughout much of the 20th century and before had been "integration" into society. "The idea was that we should go fetch those peoples and share with them the benefits of civilization, since civilization is a good of all humankind that belongs to non-Indians and Indians alike," Possuelo says.

But such a bright positivist view conflicted with reality. After contact, many natives lost their lives to influenza and other diseases to which they had no natural defense. Not a few were expelled from their traditional territories to make room for highways, dams and cattle ranches. Many were murdered, in some cases with approval of government officials. But perhaps worst of all was the cultural dislocation.

When meeting a new group, Possuelo recounts, "you must keep an eye on the folks who are there. The guys fight you with bows and arrows, they kill you, they speak up to you, they assault you." Contact, however, changes all that: "One year later they are slack, emaciated, bowing their heads and begging for food and money by the roadside." A case in point: the Arara people, who had been called the scourge of the Trans?amazônica Highway for their attacks on work crews but today live as poor peasants fully dependent on federal aid. "You break down their health, their mythical universe, their work and their education system. They become outcasts, and many of them have been outcasts for 500 years," Possuelo says.

The veteran sertanista's career began in 1959, as a disciple of Orlando and Cláudio Villas Bôas, two of the three brothers credited with saving 15 tribes by creating the Xingu Indigenous Park, Brazil's first megareservation. With them, he journeyed into the Amazon for the first time in the early 1960s. In the 1970s he joined FUNAI and made his first solo contact with an isolated group, the Awá-Guajá of Maranhão.

By 1987 Possuelo decided to take the Villas Bôas strategy further, because even peaceful contact with such groups often destroyed their native culture and self-sufficiency. His idea: to avoid contact altogether. He convinced the government that it was more practical to demarcate indigenous lands and to guard the borders with armed agents than to provide for them indefinitely. "We do it for threatened animal species, why can't we do it for a unique ethnic group that has been there for thousands of years?" he asks. "That's good for the Indians, who will see their land and their tribal traditions respected, and good for the state, who will no longer be charged with genocide." As an added bonus, a study found that legally recognized indigenous lands in the Amazon had lower average deforestation rates (1.14 percent) than federal conservation units (1.47 percent).

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