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.

And there are practical reasons for a policy of noncontact.

It's much cheaper for the government to fund the expedition and demarcate the land than to make contact just for the sake of it. This is one reason. The other reason is that they have no resistance against our germs. The third thing is that they lose their autonomy and become fully dependent on the state. We bring them manufactured good that they can't make and can't earn by themselves. They are not structured beings, whoo work from nine to five as we do. The guy is there working, soon a friend of his comes by and asks him if he wants to go fishing. He looks out, sees that it's a beautiful day out there and does go fishing. They are not inserted in our economic standards or submitted to the giants of our science. They live in another world, another time. That's why our economic projects don't seem to suit them.

You were fired last year from FUNAI. Famed sertanista Orlando Villas Bôas, your mentor, had also been fired shortly before his death, in 2002. Is there anything wrong with the old sertanistas?

Of course I side with the sertanistas here. Rondon was sued and prosecuted--as an Army general and as a sertanista too, but mostly as a sertanista. Apoena's father [Francisco Meirelles, the father of sertanista Apoena Meirelles, who was killed in a robbery in 2004] was arrested, charged with corruption. Then you had Orlando, who was just thrown away by the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso [Brazil's president from 1995 to 2003]. Then you have me. They just opened the window and "zup!"—tossed me away. I have always been very vocal. In 34 years of public service I have never been one of those nice workers who agree with everything the government does.

Orlando was not so stringent, but he sided with the Indians as much as I do. Rondon is much above us all. He was one of those very few national heroes, in a country that lacks them.

Your dismissal was caused by your reaction to a statement by FUNAI's then president Mércio Gomes…

…which was awful! Mércio was the only president of FUNAI—therefore the lawful protector of the indigenous peoples—to say that the indigenous peoples have enough land already. This is absolutely vital to them. I wasn't in the city, I was in the bush with the Zo'é Indians, and they got me on the radio. They asked me if I could comment, since no one wanted to comment. I said, "This is absurd! Everybody should comment. This is something you hear from loggers, from rubber tappers, not from the president of FUNAI."

So now you have a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping the indigenous peoples. How did that get started?

In November 2005, I managed to organize the first international meeting on the isolated peoples of Amazonia and Gran Chaco. Among the meeting's several goals was to create an institution, a network, that got people together who dedicate themselves to the protection of those peoples in the seven South American countries that still have isolated Indians, meaning indigenous peoples whose language you don't know, whose numbers you don't know and who live naked in the jungle, just like they used to before the discovery of America. Of course there have been some changes—territorial restrictions and so forth—but they are basically unprotected and rely on the environment for everything.

Which seven countries have indigenous Amazonians?

Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. Ecuador has a big Amazonian territory. Last year awful things happened there. Other indigenous groups killed isolated Indians and showed off their severed heads. Many of those peoples, particularly in Brazil, live in frontier areas. So it's no use for a country to protect them if the country across the border doesn't. I sensed there was the need for an agreement among those countries to make life easier for those folks, so that they can roam free across borders.

But how would this work in practice? Don't they already move across borders without being harassed?

It turns out that you have several different situations on both sides. If you know that you have Indians on this side, you protect this side. But on the unprotected side loggers may come in, so they get killed on the other side.

How did you get started in this business?

As a tick stuck to Orlando's neck. I'd even buy cigarettes for him and took pride in that. When I was a young man, the Villas Bôases were national heroes. I remember reading stories in O Cruzeiro magazine about their expeditions, and that was a permanent invitation to adventure. What took me to them at first was not any kind of historical awareness towards the indigenous peoples. It was merely the spirit of adventure that took over completely the mind of an 18-year-old.

When did you first go into the Amazon?

Orlando took me there. It was in 1959 or 1960. By then the air mail, the Correio Aéreo Nacional, had flights from São Paulo and Rio through Brasília to Manaus, and they used to land in the Xingu. I boarded one of those flights. And it was tragicomic. It was pouring with rain when we landed in the Capitão Vasconcelos outpost, now Leonardo Villas Bôas. The plane skidded off the airstrip and ended up with its nose in the mud. The load was unstrapped and fell all on my head.

Then I came out along with a fellow from the army, a sergeant, to try to tie a steel cable to the little wheel in the backside landing gear and have a tractor pull it, so that we'd be able to get the plane back into position. But the guy driving the tractor pulled right at the time when the sergeant was tying the cable to the wheel, so it tore his finger. Pow! Off the finger comes—it hits my chest and lands in the mud. So I ran to the outpost for help—there were Indians all around. But I stumbled and fell with my face in the mud. Then 100 Indians…burst with laughter! I got up, wet and filthy, and thought: "Sons of a whore, I'd kill half a dozen of them!" But that didn't make me give up.

How do you think the Indians would feel about your noninterference policy?

Were I an Indian, I wouldn't want white people around. Not in my hut, not in my life. No sertanistas, no FUNAI. I would probably be dead, but I'd rather die with a bullet in my chest than live begging by the roadside.