- In an interview with Mongabay, one of the country’s leading Indigenous affairs experts tells how he helped change national policy toward the isolated peoples of Brazil, with whom he now avoids contact at all costs.
- Sydney Possuelo, now 83 years old, began his career as an explorer during the expeditions of the Villas-Bôas brothers, creators of Xingu Indigenous Park.
- He went on to join Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, working there for 42 years, including as its president in the 1990s.
- In this interview, he talks about the main achievements for Indigenous peoples in recent years, the future of isolated peoples in Brazil, and why he doesn’t agree with the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
Sydney Possuelo was just a teenager when he became close with two men he viewed as national heroes: the Villas-Bôas brothers, fundamental figures in the creation of Xingu Indigenous Park, the first registered Indigenous territory in Brazil, founded in 1961. He accompanied them on expeditions into the Brazilian Amazon, also under the influence of the legacy of Cândido Rondon, a military general and sertanista, or specialist in the sertão, what was then considered the undeveloped interior regions of Brazil. Rondon at the time also headed what was then known as the Indian Protection Service (SPI) and was an early supporter of establishing the Xingu reserve, which would come into being a few years after his death.
Later that decade, in 1967, the National Indian Foundation (Funai, now the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples) was created, in which Possuelo served as a sertanista, one of the official positions then available in the federal agency. In the 1990s, he became president of Funai, and during his tenure helped demarcate more than 100 Indigenous territories throughout Brazil.
In his 42 years at Funai, Possuelo created the Department of Isolated Indians, a division dedicated to protecting uncontacted peoples — a topic on which he would become the country’s foremost expert.
“The idea was: Let’s go find these isolated Indigenous peoples and make contact. I had the opportunity to meet seven groups who came out of the jungle for the first time,” he says in the documentary Sydney Possuelo, uma Vida Amazônica (Sydney Possuelo, an Amazonian Life). With the passage of time, however, and after a specific — and tragic — experience with the Arara people in Pará state, Possuelo realized that seeking out contact with people who had chosen to live in isolation was not the best way to protect them.
In this exclusive interview with Mongabay, Possuelo shares this story and talks about the main achievements made for Indigenous peoples in recent years, the future for voluntarily isolated peoples in Brazil, and why he doesn’t agree with the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.
Mongabay: Establishing a timeline, what were the main achievements for isolated peoples in Brazil?
Sydney Possuelo: The first moment starts with Rondon in 1910, when the Brazilian state created an entity to care for Indigenous peoples, the Indian Protection Service (SPI). During this period, there was a very important incident, which characterizes the marshal’s posture and that of the SPI itself: It was when he was on horseback near the village of Nhambiquaras and took an arrow in his bandolier. The officers were astonished by this and they wanted to react, but the military leader gave the order for this not to happen. Rondon said that they were the invaders and that, under these circumstances, would “die if necessary, never kill,” a phrase that became famous and which I subsequently adopted as the motto of our operations in the jungle.
Later on, another moment of great importance, not only in regard to isolated peoples, but to Indigenous people in general, was the Villas-Bôas brothers’ achievement in founding Xingu Indigenous Park. There, several tribes came together in the center of Brazil without any resulting deaths. Different ethnicities adjusted, eventually creating an organization in which each spoke their own language, and it was just like having an Organization of Indigenous Nations.
And a third moment, sorry to mention myself, but I don’t see any other way of doing this, was when we changed the policy of making contact to one of not making contact.
Mongabay: How did this policy change come about?
Sydney Possuelo: It happened after the Arara expedition. It had been nine years since a contact front attempted to approach this people, who are located near Altamira, in Pará state. In December 1979, Funai workers in the region were seriously injured with arrows and I was summoned to understand and resolve the situation. I spent a week flying over the area and made some proposals for changes, which included, first of all, the withdrawal of invaders from the region, having come with the creation of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. I also requested medical staff and a helicopter. Throughout our history, viruses are what have killed the most Indians, so I needed to offer [health] infrastructure in the event that they were to be infected.
After nine months, some Arara approached us. They actually wanted to go to the city. So they did. When they got back, some of them returned to the maloca [ancestral longhouse] in the woods and others stayed with us. It wasn’t long before a small group started coughing, a symptom of flu, so we gave them antibiotics right away. But what about those who had gone into the forest? They weren’t protected. So I organized some search parties and, to our sad surprise, they found a number of dead Indians. They saw a dead woman and her daughter, about 5, 6 years old, on top of her, trying to nurse.
That was a terrible response for me. With all the paraphernalia I had brought there, we still weren’t successful. I was determined to propose something different. So I spoke to the president of Funai at the time about creating a policy that would include the identification of where these isolated peoples are, the demarcation of the land without making contact, and the protection of the people and their areas through aerial or land devices. The Department of Isolated Indians was created, along with six teams called ethno-environmental protection fronts to protect these people and their territories. The measures contradicted some Funai sertanistas. At a meeting, one of them said that it would take away the glory of their work, that of discovering and revealing peoples to the world. My response to him was: “The glory of a sertanista should be in defending a people he will never see.”
Mongabay: You were one of those responsible for the demarcation of the Yanomami territory. In January, there was the tragic news of mass deaths there during the Bolsonaro administration (from 2019-2022). And we saw the newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, visit the region with the minister of Indigenous peoples, Sonia Guajajara. After the first few months of this new administration, and considering the legacy of the previous administration, what actions do you consider to be a priority at this time with regard to Indigenous peoples?
Sydney Possuelo: I think it is necessary to consider that the Lula administration faces great difficulties in organizing itself because everything is in ruins: the economy, the Indigenous issue, the issue of the environment. Other than that, there is the National Congress, a segment of which, for the most part, does not support it.
In my view, looking attentively and with the respect I have for him and for the Workers’ Party, which is trying to do its best, these circumstances which I mentioned hinder more effective action. We’re in the fifth month of the administration and I have the impression that he hasn’t started governing completely. Some things have been done, like what you mentioned, the visit to the Yanomami. In fact, I think he should go back there now, because there are serious problems there. But everything takes a lot of time. I understand. I understand that this is how it is, because of the challenges I brought up before. I’m not accusing him of anything.
Mongabay: What do you think of the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples?
Sydney Possuelo: Look, honestly, if I was in power, I wouldn’t have created it the way he did. I think, first of all, all efforts should be concentrated on Funai. It already exists. It already has experience. It needs to be replenished in resources, in experts, because all of this has been dismantled in the last few years [under Bolsonaro].
Every ministry you create is an extra expense and that money could be put into Funai to do what needs to be done, which is to remove the invaders from the Yanomami lands and demarcate other Indigenous territories.
Funai has the Indians’ respect, while the ministry is something new. I was president of the institution and I remember the many times that [Indigenous groups] came here to Brasília, holding hands and forming a chain around Funai’s [office] to protect it from raids by the police, for example. Indigenous people have always recognized our work, despite our mistakes and failures.
State organizations always fall short of people’s needs. But it’s important to say that, if the state wants to, a lot can happen. In my first year [as president] at Funai, when [Fernando] Collor was president of Brazil, we doubled the area of Indigenous territories in the country in one year. When the government wants to act, it does. When it doesn’t want to, it doesn’t, as was the case during this tsunami that we experienced the last four years.
Mongabay: When was the last time you went into the field? Have you taken any trips recently?
Sydney Possuelo: I took two trips quite recently. The first was on the 30th anniversary of the demarcation of the Yanomami [territory]. At that time, we had already found the situation that’s there now, one of hunger, disease, invasion. I was there for five or six days in June of last year.
After that, I went to Maranhão state, to the Arariboia area, because that’s where the Guardians of the Forest are. And I have a son, Orlando, who works in the Vale do Javari. Incidentally, he was friends with Bruno Pereira, the Indigenist who was killed last year. He was taking the Guardians of the Forest from the valley there and taking them to Maranhão with the objective of having them exchange experiences. Then there was the reciprocation, with people from Maranhão going to Javari.
This circulation is important because it empowers the Indians. They have to be increasingly present on the frontlines. It’s often very difficult, because they live in another reality, and make certain mistakes, but we have to consider that there’s a learning process. And, compared to the Indians, we white people are guilty of much more stupidity than they are.
Mongabay: Do you have any upcoming trips scheduled?
Sydney Possuelo: There are people who are making a movie with me, telling my story. We’ve been filming for two years, and now there are some scenes that they want to shoot with the Indigenous people. One of the chosen areas is the Vale do Javari. The other one is there in Araras, in Pará. So we should do this in the second half of 2023.
Mongabay: In the documentary Sydney Possuelo, an Amazonian Life, there’s a saying of yours that goes: “The future of these peoples doesn’t depend on them, but on our decisions.” Considering the present, how do you see the future of isolated peoples in Brazil?
Sydney Possuelo: I would repeat this phrase with no fear of being wrong. There was an important advance with Joenia Wapichana [Funai’s current head], with the minister of Indigenous peoples. But if you analyze everything that Funai or this new ministry can do, what’s it going to amount to? The decision is up to the governments. The decision is ours. So, I think the Indians continue to depend on the understanding that we have or don’t have, on our feeling of what we want to implement regarding the issues that involve Indigenous peoples.
And they have to participate increasingly more, to go to universities — these vacancies that open up and are very important, to participate in Congress, to be representatives, senators, to try to do something — and hoping that those who take these positions will remain Indigenous in their hearts, and not become white on the inside. We could have here, as in other countries, permanent seats in the Senate for Indigenous peoples. They aren’t elected by the population. The Indigenous community itself would put them there and they would change every two years. It would be important to have these seats. That way, Indigenous people would not only be in Funai, in the ministry, but inside the National Congress, too. The state needs to understand this and provide these conditions.
Banner image of Sydney Possuelo with Awa-Guajá Indigenous people in Maranhão state, courtesy of Sydney Possuelo.