RIO DE JANEIRO — LAST April, Sydney Possuelo spent seven days flying over the Amazon jungle in a small plane before he found what he was seeking: 15 huts of a previously unknown tribe of Indians.
"It was like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Mr. Possuelo, who heads Brazil's Department of Isolated Indians, a branch of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).
Possuelo assumed a tribe lived in an inaccessible rain forest near the border with Peru after three white settlers were slain by arrows. Having found them, he is determined to make sure they are left alone. He has ordered FUNAI agents to "demarcate," or mark off, the tribe's territorial limits and then create guard posts to keep out intruders. He also asked Acre State officials to settle the farmers elsewhere.
In years past, FUNAI agents would have attempted to assimilate the tribe - which remains nameless - into the nation's social and economic mainstream.
But Possuelo believes the only way to save Brazil's last remote indigenous peoples from extinction is to seal them off from modern society. "These are unique cultures in the world that deserve government protect- ion," says Possuelo, who in the past 24 years has discovered seven tribes. "Our job is to keep modern society away from them."
He argues that contact has caused other remote tribes to lose their culture after the introduction of consumer goods, be exploited for cheap labor, and perish from epidemics.
The old policy of assimilation changed after Possuelo persuaded FUNAI to create the Department of Isolated Indians in 1988, which he now heads.
Today, its 40 agents seek out remote tribes in unexplored pockets of Amazon basin states. Since its inception, the department has confirmed the existence of 21 such tribes.
"Dealing with isolated groups is the most delicate and challenging task that the Brazilian government faces regarding indigenous issues," says Stephan Schwartzman, an Amazon expert for the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund.
"It's extremely important that Possuelo has modified traditional government practices so isolated tribes can remain culturally different for as long as they see fit," he adds.
Not everybody agrees.
"It won't do to have Indians in the 21st century," Helio Jaguaribe, a former science and technology minister, has said. "The idea of freezing man in the first stage of his evolution is in truth, cruel and hypocritical."
Who gets the land?
Possuelo's relentless effort to demarcate territory for remote tribes has also put him on the front lines of one of the most explosive controversies in Brazil - the fight over Indian lands.
No one knows how many native people lived in Brazil when Portuguese navigator Pedro Cabral came ashore in 1500; estimates vary from 1 million to 11 million. Today, there are only 300,000 survivors whose territories are protected by the 1988 Constitution, which recognizes their "original right to the land they traditionally occupy."
Yet most Indian territories, whether demarcated or not, are coveted for farmland, minerals, timber, gold, game, and even marijuana growing.
In recent years, incursions into indigenous areas have caused a sharp increase in violence against Indians, says the Roman Catholic Church's Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI).
In fact, invasions of Indian lands in 1997 increased 95 percent compared with 1996, and illnesses from contact with outsiders rose 12-fold, according to a CIMI report.
"These tribes are in constant warfare with modern civilization," says Orlando Villas Boas, a Brazilian anthropologist known internationally for his work with Amazon tribes.
Nonetheless, many Amazon basin politicians criticize the government's effort to demarcate some 198 million acres, or 11 percent of the nation's total territory for Brazil's remaining 200 tribes. They argue that officials must rethink a policy that gives too much territory to a fraction of the population.
Elton da Luz Rohnelt, a federal congressman and mining entrepreneur from the Amazon basin state of Roraima, is one such politician. He has labeled the demarcation process "absurd" and questions Possuelo's math.
"There are two, maybe three isolated tribes in all of Brazil," he says. "If Sydney [Possuelo] says there are now 21, it's a ploy to fatten the budget for an agency that is totally unnecessary."
In response, Possuelo says Congressmen Rohnelt is "misinformed and obviously defending the interests of his electorate."
Possuelo's fascination with the Amazon jungle began when he was a teenager, after reading about the exploits of Orlando and Claudio Villas Boas, Brazil's most renowned anthropologists. The Villas Boas brothers gained fame for searching out isolated tribes and trying to save them from advancing development.
"I didn't think about Indians at the time," Possuelo recalls, "only adventure."
He eventually became the Villas Boas's "Boy Friday," running errands while waiting for a chance to join the next expedition. In 1961, the brothers sent the young novice to Xingu National Park, a new Indian reserve they created for 16 rain-forest tribes removed from their traditional lands because of clashes with developers.
"Sydney was very young and enthusiastic," recalls Orlando Villas Boas. "He told us, 'I want to do what you do,' so we took him to Xingu."
For the next several years, Possuelo treated the sick, delivered babies, and performed administrative duties. He lived in a hut and learned to eat monkey, wild boar, jabuti (a kind of land turtle), and armadillo.
He soon came to admire the tribes' ability to use the jungle to meet their needs as well as their "authentic simplicity."
"We live in a world of appearances, where people say one thing to your face and then stab you in the back," he says. "When jungle Indians don't like you, they tell you to your face."
Possuelo also became enthralled by the jungle. "When I am immersed in its vast forests, I feel like I'm inside a living thing and am one with the earth," he says. "I have been truly lucky to have spent more time in the jungle than behind a desk."
Possuelo is also lucky to be alive.
In 1975, he acted as mediator during a territorial dispute between the Kaiapo tribe and ranchers. Irate landowners pistol-whipped him and knocked out five teeth.
"They called me a traitor to my race," he recalls. "I got out alive only after 200 Indians surrounded them."
In 1980, Possuelo was ambushed by the Araras tribe, which was angry that a section of the trans-Amazon highway had been constructed through their territory in Para State. When a warrior aimed his bow at Possuelo's heart, another motioned for him to put the weapon down.
"I have no idea why he spared me," says Possuelo. "But I do know that the Araras couldn't tell the difference between a FUNAI agent and a road builder."
In 1996, Possuelo walked into a village inhabited by a remote tribe that had previously killed eight FUNAI agents. The Korubo, who live along the Itacoai River near the border of Peru and Colombia, had been attacked by loggers and ranchers. Drug traffickers had use their forest to build clandestine airfields.
It took six months before the besieged tribe permitted Possuelo to visit - the first amicable contact with the Korubos. His team arrived singing songs as a sign of peace, since the Korubo believe that only enemies arrive in silence. With the help of an interpreter, Possuelo eventually persuaded them to remain in a FUNAI-protected area.
And just last month Possuelo and several soldiers swooped down in an army helicopter to rescue 22 FUNAI agents surrounded by an unidentified tribe near the Peruvian border. Possuelo says the Indians were angry that the federal Indian agents, who were demarcating indigenous territory, had entered their forest.
For his efforts, Possuelo has received many laurels. The government has awarded him several medals, and he is an honorary citizen of three cities, including Rio de Janeiro. In May, Spain's Prince of Asturias gave him that nation's prestigious Bartolom de Las Casas Award. Currently, the European Community is considering a $1 million donation to his agency.
"Without the Department of Isolated Indians, Brazil's last remote jungle tribes would certainly disappear from the face of the earth," says Mr. Villas Boas.