Sacked for speaking his mind

after a lifetime defending indigenous rights


Photo: Erling Söderström 

Click on picture to view photo gallery from the expedition trail.

Sydney Possuelo is one of the very last true explorers.

He has led hundreds of expeditions across the Amazon jungle and made first contact with nine until then, unknown tribes. If it were not for him, dozens of ethnic tribes would have disappeared, exterminated by contagious diseases or bullets.

It took Sydney Possuelo several months of exploring the jungle in Javari to find traces of the Korubo people. He has devoted his life to protect the last isolated ethnic groups in the Amazon.

Born on the 19th of April 1940, the official day of the Indian in the Brazilian calender, Sydney, like so many adolescents, used to dream of adventures in the jungle. He began his career as a young boy assisting the Villas Boas brothers who were founders of Brazil's first large protected indigenous land, the Xingu Indigenous Reservation.

In the early 90's Sydney accepted an appointment as Director of the Indian Department FUNAI (Fondaçao Nacional do Indio). In two years time he managed to double the total surface of officially designated  indigenous land, including the Yanomami territory, before the opposition from strong political groups had time to get organized. Sydney then resigned from his post as top state official responsible for indigenous affairs to continue managing the protection of uncontacted isolated Indian groups.

By the middle of year 2001 around 40 unknown tribes had been located, but not contacted and Sydney leads six so-called frente de vigilanca, teams to protect these Indians' forest lands and limit the expansion of our dominant society.

After our first contact with the Korubo Indians, Sydney received many death threats from the white timber companies near Vale do Javari and the team had to resist several organized attemps at invasion. The biggest was on February 7, year 2000 when almost 300 locally organized lumbermen and swamill owners armed with guns and Molotov cocktail attempted a raid on the base but zere deterred by a rapid helicopter intervention by the Federal Police and their automatic rifles.

Since then, the so-called contact front where in 1996 we started clearing a bit of land to put up the first signs of demarcation, has turned into a well-functioning centre for the protection of the isolated Indians in Vale do Javari.

In April 1998 Sydney Possuelo was awarded the prestigous price Bartolomeu de las Casas as a recognition for his lifetime struggle for the rights of the un-contacted Indians in the Amazon forest. Later the same year I accompanied him in the Saharan desert with visiting Kamayura Indians when our car, driven at an extreme speed, left the road, overturned three times and Sydney nearly lost his life. It took many painful months for Sydney to recover.

I returned in 1999, 2000 and 2001 on several occasions and stayed out in the area during several months, documenting Sydney and the efforts for the uncontacted Indians and Korubo, amongst others for Discovery Channel.

During and after my visits, several years after our first contact, international media started awakening other and press and TV teams from Der Spiegel, Italian RAI, Tele Globo, New York Times, The Guardian, Istoe, Canal Plus (Stephane Peyron) Japanese NHK arrived during a few days to make headline stories. Besides them, a horde of media, photographers, missionaries and crazy adventurers attempted to penetrate illegally into the lands to meet the Korubo Indians.

In year 2000 a new guard post to halt incursions into Korubo land has been constructed on the Quixito river and the Javari Indian land was finally demarcated. Arial surveys revealed 18 uncontacted native communities and their existence was confirmed in our lengthy fluvial and terrestrial expedition "Ajuricaba" covering 4000 kilometers of the Amazon forest into the lands of the "Flecheiros" in the first half of year 2001. The following year a similar expedition led by Sydney over roughly the same lands was widely publicised in National Geographic magazine.

In 1998 Sydney was presented as "HERO OF THE PLANET" by Time Kids Magazine, and presented as such on United Nation's website in a small video where I have recorded a small part of the sequences. Sydney has become a well known spokesman for the so-called "lost tribes", the last survivors of decimated tribes, who hide from the outside world and have no channels to speak for themselves.

He is conscious of how important the mass media have become for funding the protection of these people and for creating an international awareness of the values of this human diversity.

That is why his project is named PROGRAMA DE PROTECÃO ETNOAMBIENTAL (ethno-environmental protection project). After all, you cannot protect people without protecting the land they live on.

On January 20 year 2006, only two months after Sydney had successfully organized the first international meeting of experts from a dozen countries to unite for the protection of the isolated indigenous people, he was dismissed from his post in FUNAI (Fundacao Nacional do Indio), which is a disastrous blow to the existing structures of protection he has managed to organize during his life. This because he had dared to contest a statement made FUNAI president Mercio Pereira Gomes that in Brazil there is "too much land for very few Indians", a slanted argument usually presented by loggin companies, gold diggers and ranchers.

Much thanks to Sydney Possuelo, of six Latin American countries who have uncontacted, isolated indigenous groups, Brazil was the only nation with a defined policy to protect the lands of these populations. Now this protection is being dismantled by a more aggressive policy in the interest of the economic powers bent on exploiting the land and the last resources of the rainforest.




Piercing picture



The arrow went through Afonso's chest.

The Arara Indians had not forgotten the many painful meetings with the white people and laid in ambush for the "sertanistas" who sought a peaceful contact. Three men were hit by a rain of arrows.


On the picture (top right) Afonso carries two Arara arrows in his chest, one arrow goes right through and sticks out from his back.
On this occasion, three FUNAI men were wounded. One received an arrow which opened his belly whereupon his intestines came out. All three survived the attack, thanks to speedy hospital admittance


Sydney Possuelo at home in Brasilia, shows a photo of Afonso pierced by two arrows in a first contact expedition in the 1980's.

Afonso on 1996 Korubo contact expedition