Peace, at last

Peace, alas

Reflections on Sydney Possuelo's attempt to contact the Korubo

by Philippe Erikson, University of Paris X-Nanterre (originally written in 1996 for National Geographic Online)

Will Sydney Possuelo's life-long dedication to the bloodless "pacification" of Brazilian Amerindians end tragically on the banks of the rio Itui, in the Javari basin ? Many in Brazil believe so. And indeed, the renowned sertanista and his team are putting their lives at stake in their attempt to contact the Korubo, locally known as caceteiros, "club-wielders" (from the French casse-tête, "club", literally "break-head").

The risks are great, considering how consistently the Korubo have been defending their territory against intruders ever since the late sixties. Trespassing in Korubo lands is dangerous. Numerous rubber-tappers, fishermen, hunters, loggers, and even ostensibly friendly employees of the Brazilian government's indian agency, Funai, have been killed, not to mention the scare - and sometimes scars - occasionnaly caused to missionaries, linguists or anthropopologists. Senhor Marinho dos Santos (one of Possuelo's field-assistants) reports that since 1966, local police files record at least 33 fatalities, with peaks in 1966-7, 1974-5, 1980-84, 1991-5.

Possuelo and his team of Funai employees can be trusted to honor the sertanista's noble motto: morrer se precisa for, matar, nunca ("die if you must, but never kill"). Yet, contacting the Korubo implies a mortal risk not only for them, but also for the Indians. In fact, whether it succeeds or fails, the odds are that many Korubo will not survive this contact. The epidemics which inevitably follow a breach of isolation among native americans are doomed to take their toll. Peace can be deadly too.

As I write, Possuelo's crew only recently included one single paramedic, and locally active NGOs such as Médicos Sem Fronteira are quite vexed not to have been alerted to prepare emergency measures. But even if Funai did have a large and well-equiped medical team at hand, ready to intervene immediatly after contact is established, how does one expect it to attend all settlements of a dispersed, fearful, and still only partly located population ?

The obvious question is therefore: is all this worthwhile ? Is this contact really necessary ?

Considering the Korubo's hostility as a clear indication that they do not wish to be contacted, and considering that contact would only bring them disaster (disease, loss of political autonomy and economic self-sufficiency, alcoholism, etc.), many anthropologists and indigenists would say "no".

Neighbouring Amerindians, in particular the Matis among whom I have conducted fieldwork and who speak a language quite similar to Korubo, also generally disagree with Possuelo's project. They claim that contact would only bring the Korubo deadly epidemics and frustration caused by an insolvent longing for manufactured goods. Said one Matis woman: "My children died. My mother died. My husband died. My brothers, my sisters, my aunts and uncles. I saw the bones sticking out of their rotting corpses inside the longhouse. We were too weak to bury them. I was left alone with my two baby brothers. All my family died, and all we got in return were a few machetes. The same will happen to the Korubo".

The Matis as well as NGOs and native organizations such as CIVAJA (Central Indigena do Vale do Javari) all believe the money "wasted" for this hazardous contact could find better use. They believe it should be spent to provide assistance to those indigenous groups already attended by Funai and to strictly enforce the laws prohibiting intrusion in Korubo territory.

In a perfect world, such might indeed be the ideal solution for all native peoples of the Javari basin, Korubo included. However, given the local situation, I am convinced this is totally unrealistic. Given the economical considerations at stake, keeping the vast-amount of impoverished trigger-happy would-be intruders away from Korubo-land is all but impossible. The Korubo will only be safe after "pacification", i.e. after Funai can group the Korubo under its protection and after people in the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte (population 3600) start classifying them as "mansos" (tame) instead of "bravos" (wild).

Unlike the local police's, the Korubo's files, oral tradition and ritual wailing chants, are obviously still inacessible. Possuelo and his men did hear some highly emotionnal ritual wailing when they neared a Korubo long-house last August. But they could not understand it for want of interpreters. However, no one can deny the Korubo have suffered dozens of casualties from this on-going war against technologically superior opponents. The Korubo lack bows, using only clubs and spears (blow-pipes are only for hunting). Unsurprisingly, then, eye-witnesses frequently mention brief encounters with Korubo maimed by gun-shot or report bodies floating in the Itui or laying life-less on the beach. In Atalaia do Norte, when drunk, many will even admit unprovoked killings. But obviously, most tragedies escape the public eye.

Hostilities between Whites and Korubo are no novelty. The first reported massacre dates from 1928 when a group of Peruvians, assisted by Ticuna Indians, killed more than 40 Korubo. Then, after a tacit truce which lasted thirty to forty years, hostilities resumed for another thirty years. Yet, however endemic, the situation is far from stable and has drastically changed in the recent past. For reasons yet unknown but probably related to the intensification of the crisis they are going through, the Korubo seem to have recently split up in three groups, one of which has moved out of their traditional lands. This, of course, can only mean increased hostilities, including with other uncontacted Indians whose territory the Korubo have been pushed to encroach.

Tensions are rising. Rumors can be heard in Atalaia of plans to wipe out the Korubo once and for all by means of massive armed expeditions. Far from settling, the situation is getting worse. The tragedy is such that what can be saved of the Korubo's lives and culture can now only be via contact. No matter how costly. Sydney Possuelo is right. His P.R. tactics may seem crude when he refuses to formally explain his course of actions to interested parties; His medical strategy may seem tragically inadequate, and his reluctance to use Matis interpreters may seem counter-productive. Yet, I have immense respect for his wisdom and experience, and would not blame him for trying to help the Korubo in the only way that still seems feasible.

Things have reached such extremes that the Korubo must be contacted. Alternative solutions are unrealistic. But if I have no doubts about this, I do have fears. In the short term, fears that Korubo contact might entail unecessary casualties for lack of proper organization. Risks are particularly great after Possuelo leaves the area, i.e. after public attention declines and adjoining financial ressources drastically drop. If, as happened to the Matis, epidemics hit the Korubo several years after the consolidation of contact, casualties might run high.

In the long run, I am worried that once the region is completely "pacified", it might be opened to ruthless exploitation. For decades, the Korubo have acted as a buffer-group, preserving the isolation of the region's other (mostly contacted) native peoples living upstream from them. In many respects, they have protected the area. Oil companies, for instance, had to abandon promising prospection in the early eighties due to Indian hostility. Unknowingly and at a terrible cost in human lives, the Korubo have done much for the conservation of their part of the rain-forest and the well-being of its first inhabitants. But they can no longer withstand this position and play this role. It is our moral duty to help Funai find a better solution to preserve the physical and cultural integrity of all native peoples of the Vale do Javari.