When he first became a sertanista, Possuelo himself was seduced by the thrill of the dangerous chase, leading hundreds of search parties into Indian terri-tory—no longer to kill the Natives, but to bring them out of their traditional ways and into Western civilization (while opening up their lands, of course, to outside ownership). By the early 1980s, though, he had concluded that the clash of cultures was destroying the tribes. Like Australia’s Aborigines and Alaska’s Inuit, the Indians of the AmazonBasin were drawn to the fringes of the towns that sprang up in their territory, where they fell prey to alcoholism, disease, prostitution and the destruction of their cultural identity. Now, only an estimated 350,000 Amazon Indians remain, more than half in or near towns. “They’ve largely lost their tribal ways,” Possuelo says. The cultural survival of isolated tribes like the Korubo, he adds, depends on “our protecting them from the outside world.”
In 1986, Possuelo created the Department for Isolated Indians and—in an about-face from his previous work—championed, against fierce opposition, a policy of discouraging contact with remote Indians. Eleven years later he defied powerful politicians and forced all non-Indians to leave the JavariValley, effectively quarantining the tribes that remained. “I expelled the loggers and fishermen who were killing the Indians,” he boasts.
Most of the outsiders were from Atalaia—at 50 miles downriver, the nearest town to the exclusion zone. As we pass the town, where a marketplace and huts spill down the riverbank, Possuelo tells a story. “Three years ago, more than 300 men armed with guns and Molotov cocktails”—angry at being denied access to the valley’s plentiful timber and bountiful fishing —“came up to the valley from Atalaia planning to attack my base,” he says. He radioed the federal police, who quickly arrived in helicopters, and after an uneasy standoff, the raiders turned back. And now? “They’d still like to destroy the base, and they’ve threatened to kill me.”
For decades, violent clashes have punctuated the longrunning frontier war between the isolated Indian tribes and “whites”—the name that Brazilian Indians and non-Indians alike use to describe non-Indians, even though in multiracial Brazil many of them are black or of mixed race—seeking to profit from the rain forests. More than 40 whites have been massacred in the JavariValley, and whites have shot dead hundreds of Indians over the past century.
But Possuelo has been a target of settler wrath only since the late 1990s, when he led a successful campaign to double the size of the exclusion zones; the restricted territories now take up 11 percent of Brazil’s huge landmass. That’s drawn the attention of businessmen who wouldn’t normally care much about whether a bunch of Indians ever leaves the forest, because in an effort to shield the Indians from life in the modern age, Possuelo has also safeguarded a massive slab of the earth’s species-rich rain forests. “We’ve ensured that millions of hectares of virgin jungle are shielded from the developers,” he says, smiling. And not everyone is as happy about that as he is.
About four hours into our journey from Tabatinga, Possuelo turns the speedboat into the mouth of the coffeehued ItacuaiRiver and follows that to the ItuiRiver. We reach the entrance to the JavariValley’s Indian zone soon afterward. Large signs on the riverbank announce that outsiders are prohibited from venturing farther.
A Brazilian flag flies over Possuelo’s base, a wooden bungalow perched on poles overlooking the river and a pontoon containing a medical post. We’re greeted by a nurse, Maria da Graca Nobre, nicknamed Magna, and two fearsome-looking, tattooed Matis Indians, Jumi and Jemi, who work as trackers and guards for Possuelo’s expeditions. Because the Matis speak a language similar to the lilting, high-pitched Korubo tongue, Jumi and Jemi will also act as our interpreters.
In his spartan bedroom, Possuelo swiftly exchanges his bureaucrat’s uniform—crisp slacks, shoes and a black shirt bearing a FUNAI logo—for his jungle gear: bare feet, ragged shorts and a torn, unbuttoned khaki shirt. In a final flourish, he flings on a necklace hung with a bullet-size cylinder of antimalarial medicine, a reminder that he’s had 39 bouts with the disease.
The next day, we head up the Itui in an outboard-rigged canoe for the land of the Korubo. Caimans doze on the banks while rainbow-hued parrots fly overhead. After half an hour, a pair of dugouts on the riverbank tell us the Korubo are near, and we disembark to begin our trek along the muddy jungle track.
When at last we come face to face with the Korubo in the sun-dappled clearing, about the size of two football fields and scattered with fallen trees, Jumi and Jemi grasp their rifles, warily watching the men with their war clubs. The Korubo stand outside a maloca, a communal straw hut built on a tall framework of poles and about 20 feet wide, 15 feet high and 30 feet long.