Sydney Possuelo was the first outsider to make contact with seven isolated Indian tribes in Brazilís Amazon jungle. Now he leads expeditions that try to not make contact. That way he hopes to help indigenous peoples protect their unique cultures. After a career that spanned 33 years and governments of diverse ideologies, Possuelo was fired by the Lula administration in early 2006 after criticizing its policy for Brazilís indigenous people. We talked to the legendary explorer about his jungle exploits.
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How did you decide to become an Amazon explorer?
When I was small, the other kids would play soccer, and I would go fishing or take my slingshot into the forest. When I got a little older, I imagined myself discovering rivers and going to uncharted territories. The Vilas Boas brothers were well-known explorers in Brazil, and I introduced myself to them. But I was just seeking adventure. I didnít think much about the Indians. I wanted to go on an expedition.
When did you go on your first expedition?
My first trip was in 1959. I was a young man, 19 years old, and the experience filled my head with dreams. It was different than Iíd imagined. I learned of the Indiansí struggles and disappointments. When I met the Indians, my life changed.
You were the first person to make contact with seven previously isolated tribes. What was your goal in doing that?
I thought that this would be good for them to be in touch with the so-called civilized world. But as I went about my work, I saw that it was really bad for them. I saw that it was doing them harm. I changed.
What kind of harm?
They get diseases. They lose their autonomy. They become dependent on our world.
Whatís it like to go deep into the jungle?
The first thing you notice is the silence. The huge silence. The wind. There are no buildings, just trees, so the wind shakes the trees. Some of the trees have been around for centuries. There are trees with dozens of nests and birds flying above. The rivers are clear, and you can see fish in the water. The ground is very soft. There are lots of leaves. You donít make much noise when you walk
The tropical rainstorms are heavy. They come all of a sudden. You begin to enter a world where you donít see an animal but you see its tracks. The fruit it ate. You start seeing things from the world of nature. There are no cars, no horns, and no signs telling you what to do. You have to let go and follow your senses. Your vision gets better. Your sense of orientation gets better. You lose your fears. Some people think the forest is scary at night. But nothing really changes. Thereís just no light.
The rhythm of life changes. Thereís no need to prove anything to anybody. It helps you be more at peace with yourself.
How long are your expeditions?
My last trip lasted 110 days. Some are shorter, 20-30 days.
How do you find your way? Do you ever get lost?
These days it is a lot easier with GPS (global positioning system). Thatís put an end to some of the romance of being out in the jungle.
We still carry compasses and maps, so you canít really get lost as long as you know a little about geography and have a good compass. I take several compasses. Sometimes they break, so I have backups. I have one on my watch, another hung around my neck, and one in my backpack
Maybe youíll go hunting, tracking game, and have a hard time finding your bearings because you didnít bring the compass. Once I was lost all day. I only got back to camp at night. Everyone was worried.
But not you?
No. When youíre in your element, you arenít afraid.
What are the biggest dangers?
Iíve lost companions who were killed by Indians, but the biggest threat to me has always been from the whites. They threaten me more often Ė especially when they get into disputes over land with the Indians. One guy once put a revolver in my mouth and broke my teeth. I thought he was going to shoot. So Iím more afraid of whites than the Indians.
How about snakes?
You have to be careful because they could kill you or hurt you seriously. Iíve seen dozens of anacondas, but I never killed one. Thereís a picture of me with a dead one, but we found it that way. Later we found the whites who killed it. Iíve seen lots like that. Some even bigger. Sometimes theyíre out of the water, hanging from tree branches. But snakes arenít a constant threat. I think mosquitoes are a bigger problem. One type of mosquito is the carrier for malaria, and Iíve had malaria 39 times.
What do you eat?
Thereís no supermarket nearby. You have to find your food in the middle of the forest. Iíve eaten grasshoppers, several types of ants, and the larvae that live inside palm hearts. Iíve eaten all kinds of game: snakes, all kinds of fish, tapirs, capybara, and caiman. We joke that in jungle survival, you eat everything the monkeys eat and, if possible, you eat the monkeys.
We hunt for survival. Otherwise we would die. But we donít hurt animals for no reason. Hunting is like getting up in the morning and going to the bakery for bread. But you have to catch the animal or fish. It has to be done with respect.
When you encounter a group of Indians, how do they react?
Theyíve been persecuted by whites, so only small groups remain. In general they donít like whites because whites have attacked them before. They react, usually violently. Sometimes they shoot arrows. If we have at least 15-20 men, weíre pretty safe. Our men have to carry their weapons openly. Not that weíd ever shoot at an Indian. Weíd never think of it. But the Indians are familiar with guns Ė at one time or another, someone has shot at them or someone they know.
Have you ever been attacked yourself?
Theyíve attacked the teams I was leading. A friend of mine was clubbed to death, and weíve had several people pierced by arrows. But not me.
How do you communicate with them?
We try to bring along other Indians with us who speak the languages that they might speak. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Usually not. So you rely on mime and gestures. You give presents. Gift-giving is a universal sign of good intentions and good faith Ė unless of course it is a Trojan Horse. When we first make contact, we use things that we know they will probably like: knives, machetes, and bowls for carrying water.
What do they think of you?
They say we stink, that whites smell bad. Theyíre right. Weíve been on an expedition in the jungle wearing clothes that we wash twice a week with just water because the soap has run out. We really do stink.
How many groups are still out there without contact with civilization?
Weíve had is 42 reports. Half of those have been confirmed. So we have at least 21 groups in the Amazon. We still have to investigate the others. The investigations are expensive and difficult. They require large-scale expeditions.
Whatís the purpose of these expeditions?
Our philosophy is to not make contact. We run an expedition in an area to discover the size of the land they occupy and propose that the government set aside the land for them. We donít want to make contact. We think that they are isolated because they want to be, because of so many fights with whites. The first right of isolated peoples is to allow them to remain isolated.
Whatís the biggest threat to the Indians in Brazil today?
It is the centuries-old threat Ė our search for land. The big farms. Today the most important one is soybeans. In other times it was rubber, road building, and hydroelectric dams. Today the biggest penetration is by soybean farms. They destroy the jungle, the forest, the animals, the nests. It ends reproduction. It ends everything.
What are you plans now that you have been fired from your government job?
My plans are to continue working without being part of the government. I have criticized this administration considerably because it has not given indigenous people the attention they deserve. It hasnít improved anything. Thatís why they fired me. In one sense that opens to me the possibility to spend even more time with these peoples, to organize more expeditions, Iím not going to stop because of this, even though Iím getting old.