Champion for Brazil's indigenous gets fired

Legendary explorer and advocate for native peoples, Sydney Possuelo has been critical of landowning elite.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The legendary Brazilian explorer in charge of finding and protecting remote indigenous tribes has been fired from his job after criticizing government officials who said Brazil's native peoples have too much land.

Sydney Possuelo's boss, the head of the National Foundation for Indigenous People (Funai), made the claim in an interview, prompting Mr. Possuelo to compare him to the "ranchers, land-grabbers, miners, and loggers" who have destroyed almost a fifth of the Brazilian Amazon.

"If our highest official says the Indians have too much land, he is saying that our society and the destroyers are right," Possuelo said in comments widely reported in the Brazilian media. "It's the same thing as the environment minister calling on people to cut down trees."

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On learning of the criticism, Funai president Mercio Pereira Gomes fired Possuelo. A Funai spokesman said the two men had been at loggerheads for some time and that the split had been inevitable ever since Possuelo stepped up public criticism of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The dismissal of a man widely considered the most committed ally of Brazil's indigenous community is controversial, but not entirely surprising. A complex, single-minded, and sometimes prickly man, Possuelo frequently speaks out against those he feels are not doing enough to protect the estimated 350,000 indigenous people living in Brazil.

A fiercely dedicated explorer who has won dozens of international awards for protecting Brazil's 220 indigenous groups, Possuelo joined the forerunner to Funai in the 1960s and quickly rose through the ranks, thanks to his special relationship with indigenous groups and his uncanny ability to track down lost tribes. But he came to believe Brazil's indigenous assimilation policy was not working, and in 1987 he was chosen to head a new unit designed to protect indigenous territory from outsiders.

The Department of Isolated Indians monitors the more than 40 tribes that have little or no contact with the developed world - at least 20 of which are in immediate danger of being killed by ranchers and loggers or of contracting potentially fatal diseases - but does not contact them unless they are in danger from outsiders getting too close. When this happens, Possuelo begins legal proceedings to demarcate the land around the indigenous groups into protective reservations, which cover more than 12 percent of Brazil, according to Funai figures.

On Possuelo's frequent trips into the jungle he has navigated rivers, climbed mountains, waded through swamps, and cut tracks through forest never before touched by nonindigenous hands. Much of it is spectacularly beautiful but also fraught with danger. He has faced down a jaguar, stepped over dozens of poisonous snakes, and has had malaria so many times that he carries a flask of medicine around his neck. Indians once held him hostage for 23 days, and others burned his camp.

His most implacable opponent, however, is the rural elite who need land for cattle pasture or farming. More than 17 percent of the Amazon's original tree cover has been cut down and what remains is disappearing fast. Deforestation figures for 2004 were the highest in a decade with 10,089 square miles of tree cover gone.

Possuelo's outspoken opposition to that powerful elite has made him a hated figure in many parts of Brazil and he travels around the countryside in an unmarked car so as not to get his tires slashed. His dismissal will delight them, but it saddens and concerns indigenous groups who consider him their foremost ally.

"There are people who can take over from Possuelo and do similar work but they won't do it as well," says Gilberto Azanha, the executive coordinator of a charity called the Center for Indigenous Labor. "No one else is at his level."

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