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Out of Contact

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Scott Wallace
A member of the Amazon expedition described in Scott Wallace’s book helping to make a dugout canoe from a tree

Wallace tells the story well, embellishing it with verbal snapshots and vivid portraits of his wilderness-wise companions, from the close-knit group of just-contacted Matis to the redoubtable Sydney Possuelo himself. The chronological account maintains a steady pace, climaxing in the tension-filled middle chapters when the expedition stumbles into a close encounter with the Fle- cheiros and Possuelo’s contingency plan falls apart. Wallace captures the flavor of the trek, the heat, the rain, the biting insects, the daily exhaustion, and the mental effort needed to sustain a positive attitude in the face of discomfort, loneliness, exhaustion, and fear.

Wallace portrays Possuelo as a man possessed, a prime subject for a Werner Herzog movie, autocratic and uncompromising. He led through intimidation, not persuasion, demanding that his orders be carried out to the letter. Even insignificant failings were met with harshly, earning him the enmity of those who bore the brunt of his wrath. He could be tender and sympathetic, usually to the least sophisticated Indians in the party, but he was more typically aloof, lecturing his men rather than befriending them.

Nevertheless, by its own criteria, the expedition succeeded. It kept to the intended route and schedule, documented evidence of Flecheiro occupation over a large area—without actually meeting with the people themselves—and everyone survived. But what did it really accomplish? That is less clear. Are the Flecheiros any better off now that a global audience has been informed about them? Wallace is more ambivalent about these deeper questions.

What indeed will be the fate of the Flecheiros and others like them? Possuelo’s vision is that they will continue to live in isolation until, like the Yora in Perú, they decide on their own to do otherwise. Wallace makes clear the Sisyphean task ahead of maintaining isolated human groups. They must be actively protected against the incursions of land seekers, loggers, gold miners, and other opportunists. Rural Brazilians, many of whom have no land they can call their own, are resentful that a handful of Indians have exclusive domain over a huge “exclusion zone” (where all outsiders are excluded by law). The zone occupied by the Flecheiros encompasses a wilderness the size of Maine, yet holds only 4,500 people.

Two years before the expedition, an angry, liquored-up mob of some three hundred men brandishing shotguns attempted to breach the exclusion zone by force. Possuelo himself was present that day at the tiny control post that marked the entrance. He radioed the Federal Police, and by a rare stroke of luck, they had a helicopter in the area. Soon it was circling overhead, doors open and guns pointing down at the surly group below. The would-be invaders retreated. But will they next time? Without force majeure at the ready, the lawless frontier will advance into yet another wilderness retreat of Native Americans. Whatever the eventual fate of FUNAI’s exclusion zones, one must admire the huge commitment Brazil has made to its indigenous people, contacted as well as uncontacted, allocating to reserves more than 365,000 square miles. This is an area larger than California, Washington, and Oregon combined, five times larger than the Oklahoma Territory into which President Andrew Jackson exiled the Cherokee and other tribes.

The current FUNAI policy of isolating uncontacted people in formal exclusion zones is a third-generation policy. Two previous policies were abandoned after failure. The first began with Marshal Cândido Rondon, for whom the state of Rondônia is named. Rondon became famous for successfully directing the construction of telegraph lines across Mato Grosso far ahead of the settlement frontier. He was a charismatic and highly principled military man who regarded the Indians as human beings worthy of respect and humane treatment. The work of constructing the telegraph lines brought him into contact with numerous ethnic groups whose cooperation he obtained through nonviolent means. Rondon lived by the motto “Die if you must, but never kill.” He was convinced that the only future for the Indians lay in assimilation, so he made efforts to bring them education to help them assimilate into society. In 1910 he was named director of the SPI (Indian Protection Service) and given a mandate to integrate Indians into Brazilian culture.

The policy of assimilation eventually foundered because Rondon’s vision was not shared by many of his countrymen. Indians were viewed as second-class citizens or worse, and treated with derision by the settlers who were pushing ever farther into the interior. The Indians’ culture of survival that had served them so well prior to their encounter with Western society had little relevance or value afterward. The lure of “things” (including alcohol) was irresistible and led to dependencies. Missionaries forbade them to go naked, thus requiring them somehow to obtain clothing. With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price.

Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens. Exploited by settlers and unscrupulous merchants, and with little prospect of achieving a level of prosperity, independence, and self-respect that would have carried them over the cultural divide into real assimilation, many indigenous communities became trapped in a state of demoralization and profound cultural poverty, being neither what they once were nor what Rondon had envisioned for them.

After Rondon, the SPI lacked vision and leadership and fell into a mire of bureaucracy, apathy, and corruption. The condition of indigenous people in Brazil became so deplorable that the Ministry of Interior appointed a high-level commission in 1967 to investigate it. Its five-thousand-page report exposed a nightmare of murder, torture, slavery, sexual abuse, and land appropriation and resulted in the creation in 1970 of FUNAI, led by Cláudio and Leonardo Villas Boas. Like their predecessor Rondon, the Villas Boas brothers were charismatic, media-savvy, and highly sympathetic to the Indians. But this time, the vision was different. In 1970, Brazil was beginning to construct the Transamazon Highway, a vast network of roads designed to integrate the Amazon into the national economy. Its routes, projected as lines on a map, crossed great swaths of terra incognita that was the homeland of numerous tribes, many uncontacted and some whose very existence, much less their ethnic and linguistic affinities, was entirely unknown.

If Indians living in the path of the Transamazon Highway weren’t contacted (“pacified” was the term of choice) and relocated, the consequences for them would have been disastrous. Conflicts with surveying and construction crews were inevitable. So were Western diseases—measles, influenza, dysentery, malaria. Isolated people have no resistance to such diseases and first contact with Europeans frequently results in demographic losses in excess of 80 percent. After demographic collapse, many tribes simply ceased to exist as organized entities.

To ward off these horrific prospects, the Villas Boas brothers organized a crash program, carried out by highly trained sertanistas—team leaders—to establish contact and then pacify and relocate entire villages and tribes. Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible. Once a person knows such things exist, then that person and his entire community are irrevocably changed. Missionaries trying to make contact to save souls know this and exploit it to lure people into a trap of dependency. Dependency instantly demotes proud, confident, and independent people to a mendicant status that is pitiable to behold.

Sertanistas carried out FUNAI’s pacification policy with vigor and dedication, but with severely qualified success. Newly contacted groups invariably contracted Western diseases and suffered heavy mortality. Entire ethnicities were moved to a huge reservation on the Xingu River where they were thrown in with other ethnic groups, sometimes including former enemies. Relocation accompanied by heavy mortality fractured families, leaving bewildered, disoriented, and dispirited survivors. Eventually the sertanistas themselves became disillusioned. Dissatisfaction with the pacification policy on the part of the people responsible for carrying it out, and completion of the Transamazon Highway project, combined to lay the groundwork for a third policy. Ample experience demonstrated that Indians can’t be contacted and moved about without killing and demoralizing them.

The best solution, Possuelo argued, is to leave them alone in situ. Find out where they live, create reserves for them in absentia, and keep the rest of the world out. By dint of charisma, reputation, and force of personality, Possuelo argued, cajoled, and eventually persuaded the government to create a new category of reserve, so-called “exclusion zones” where uncontacted tribes could live in their traditional way without risk of either guns or germs. Rondon’s policy was designed to advance the frontier, whereas Possuelo’s had the opposite effect, that of freezing the frontier.

Forced acculturation and pacification both failed as policies, whereas the jury is still out on Possuelo’s policy of isolation in exclusion zones. Wallace recounts some of the history but he doesn’t take on the difficult task of suggesting what should be done to prevent future disasters. With development pressures mounting by the year and rampant lawlessness on the frontier, exclusion zones can be regarded at best as a temporary expedient. In time, they are certain to be breached by resource seekers with all the adverse consequences the exclusion zones were created to avoid.

Here’s an example of what can be expected. Illegal logging is rampant throughout the Amazon and nearly uncontrollable. It takes place within parks and other nominally protected areas as well as on private, indigenous, and state lands. Well-intentioned international efforts to prevent the extinction of bigleaf mahogany led to a sharp rise in its price in the early 2000s. There followed a gold rush–like assault on mahogany stands in the newly created Alto Purus National Park in Perú, a vast forested wilderness occupied by several uncontacted indigenous groups. The large-scale intrusion of men, chainsaws, and heavy equipment terrified the park’s inhabitants, causing some groups to flee across the border into Brazil and others to seek refuge elsewhere in Perú.

At one time there were estimated to be five thousand loggers in the park, completely overwhelming the handful of guards assigned to protect the area. Feature articles on the sacking of the park’s mahogany appeared in Perú in the most prominent national media—newspapers, magazines, television. The identities of the wholesalers responsible for most of the export of mahogany logs were well known to the public, yet to my knowledge no arrests were ever made. One would have to have faith in a much more assertive level of law enforcement to think that strict reserves for nonvoting indigenous people could remain inviolate for long.

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