On the trail of primitive tribes Amazon: A controversial activist fights to protect isolated tribes in Brazil, where loggers, miners, ranchers and farmers press relentlessly into the rain forest.

Sun Journal

July 13, 1998|By Katherine Ellison | Katherine Ellison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BRASILIA, Brazil -- In this age of genetic mapping and space exploration, Sydney Possuelo devotes himself to tracking down groups of people who have never seen a light bulb.

As the controversial director of Brazil's Department of Isolated Indians, Possuelo, 58, has found eight such groups in the past 10 years. He spotted the most recent one in April, after a week of flying a small plane over the Amazon rain forest.

The new group is nameless. Little is known of the people besides the shape of their thatched dwellings -- about 15 long, narrow huts near the border with Peru -- and that, like most so-called "lost tribes," they don't want to be found. And if Possuelo has his way, nothing more will be known until they are ready.

"I have no plan to contact them. The plan is to protect them and leave them alone," he says, chain-smoking Marlboros at his desk, in front of a wall adorned with 32 long, feathered spears.

Anthropologists suspect that the Amazon rain forest, which also cloaks parts of Venezuela, Colombia and Peru, is the world's last refuge for native groups that have had little or no contact with whites. The treatment of isolated Indians is an explosive political issue in Brazil, where vast areas remain undeveloped, but where loggers, miners, cattle ranchers and desperate subsistence farmers press relentlessly into the forest.

In an ambitious, much-delayed plan, Brazil's government has promised to set aside nearly 200 million acres, roughly 11 percent of the national territory, for its remaining 300,000 Indians. That includes 21 groups, discovered by Possuelo's department, who have had limited contact with whites.

Development advocates say it is too much land for too few people. They prefer Brazil's old policy of trying to integrate Indians into society. However, Possuelo persuaded the government to change its ways in 1989, when he created the department he now heads during a wave of public support for indigenous rights.

Since then, Brazil -- in contrast to how the United States dealt with its Indians -- has let native peoples stay put and has struggled to shield them from invasions.

To protect the new group, near the Envira River in Acre state, Possuelo says he plans to station armed guards hired by Funai, Brazil's Indian agency, to close off river traffic to white settlers.

"The government isn't giving the Indians land; it is simply recognizing their rights to it," he says. "It's not a matter of being nice. We have a historical and moral duty."

Not everyone agrees. In the 37 years Possuelo has been working with Indians, he has faced malaria (which he has contracted 36 times), the breakup of two marriages (casualties of his long stints in the jungle) and threatening encounters with fierce tribes known by names such as Head-Bashers. But the biggest threat to his career has come from pro-development groups.

"I have nothing against him personally," says Euler Ribeiro, a federal congressman from Amazonas state who for months has been demanding that Possuelo be fired. "But he's a liar, mentally ill, a demagogue and corrupt."

Ribeiro objects to Possuelo's policy of closing rivers to whites, and alleges that Possuelo has received money from television stations.

Possuelo says he has never profited from his work. His salary is less than $40,000 a year. He rents a modest home and drives a dusty Volkswagen Golf. His office is in one of Brasilia's shabbiest buildings, with broken glass, crumbling plaster and dirty carpets, and he is continually wrangling for more government money for his expeditions.

Possuelo says Ribeiro "represents the forces that want to loot the Indians. Such people have no humanity in their proposals."

The child of stage actors, Possuelo was inspired to become a frontiersman through his fascination with Brazil's most famous anthropologists, Claudio and Orlando Villas Boas. At 19, he joined them, starting as an unpaid gofer but soon moving to Xingu National Park, a reservation they created, where he ate wild monkey and armadillo and worked directly with Indians.

"At first, I only wanted adventure," he says. "But by living with the Indians, I found they really changed my way of thinking. They are the most anarchistic people I've met, the most creative and most free."

Possuelo's work in recent years has won international recognition. In May, Spain awarded him the prestigious Bartolome de las Casas award. He has received offers of financial support from the European Economic Community for projects with several groups of isolated Indians in the Javari Valley, in western Amazonas state.

At home, however, he is criticized even by his admirers.

Advocacy groups such as the Indianist Missionary Council, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, found fault with Possuelo for making contact two years ago with a small group of Korubo Indians, those of head-bashing fame, in the Javari Valley.

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