In the Sertão

Andrew Downie

The Portuguese word sertão means ‘hinterland’ or ‘back country’, and in Brazil it refers to the inland forests, deserts and mountains far from the cities that line the Atlantic coast. Someone who has explored those regions is known as a sertanista, and the greatest living sertanista is Sydney Possuelo.

Possuelo, now 82, holds the Bolsonaro regime responsible for the murder of his fellow sertanista Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips in the far west of the Amazon last month. The two men were travelling up the Itaquaí river on 5 June when they were ambushed and shot dead by a local fisherman who had previously clashed with Pereira.

The Javari Valley area where Pereira and Phillips disappeared is home to at least 26 Indigenous tribes, most of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world. Although the threat from loggers, prospectors, hunters and drug traffickers is constant, the tribes have long had some degree of protection, thanks to a policy introduced by Possuelo in the late 1980s.

Before then, government sertanistas contacted remote tribes if roads or infrastructure projects were being built on their land, or if they were in imminent danger from invaders. The contact was governed by a strict rule of non-violence. Under Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, an army officer with Indigenous ancestry, who founded and directed the Brazilian government’s Indian Protection Service in 1910, the SPI’s motto was ‘die if you must, but kill never.’

The policy, though, also welcomed the integration of Indians into settler society and the flaws in that were becoming clear as Possuelo rose through the ranks of Funai, the SPI’s successor organisation, in the 1970s. The right-wing military dictatorship was intent on dominating the Amazon and plundering its natural resources. The generals promised ‘a land without men for men without land’ and encouraged settlers to strike out and populate the sertão.

It spelled disaster for the Indigenous communities who lived there. They were swallowed up, pushed further into the jungle, or absorbed into settler society and devoured by it. Whatever happened, they lost, and Possuelo – already famous for having made the first contact with seven isolated tribes – realised there had to be a better way. In 1987 he convinced Funai to set up an isolated Indians department and create protected reserves for the tribes whose land was under threat.

‘Contacting them is bad, not contacting them is bad, so what to do?’ he said to me recently. ‘I thought, the state has to find out where they are, delineate their land, and let them live in accordance with their own traditions. The limitations are there not for them, but for us, so we don’t cause them harm.’

In theory the policy is still in operation today, though it has become flimsier than ever under Bolsonaro. The former army captain has undermined Funai and the environmental bodies whose job is to preserve the rainforest. He once said Indigenous people were ‘evolving, (becoming) more and more human like us’ and lauded the US cavalry for slaughtering North America’s native peoples. His own government awarded him the Indigenous Merit Medal in March, leading Possuelo, who received the award in 1987, to hand his back in protest. Bolsonaro has kept a campaign promise not to give Indigenous people ‘one more square centimetre of land’.

That obstructionist tactic stands in direct contrast to another of Possuelo’s legacies, the land redistribution policy of the early 1990s. In the lead up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Possuelo was appointed head of Funai by President Fernando Collor de Mello. Collor would later be impeached and his name would become a byword for presidential corruption. But he gave Possuelo freedom to hand over large parts of the Amazon to the people who had lived there for centuries and doubled the amount of land reserved for Indigenous groups.

Thirty years later, the threats to Brazil’s native peoples are worse than ever. The number of recorded invasions of Indigenous land has doubled under Bolsonaro and, as Possuelo points out, the invaders are no longer individuals but powerful organisations. Bolsonaro’s decision to open the Amazon to all-comers and stuff his government with flunkies who can make it happen is having a real effect. When Possuelo talks, it is with the indignation of a man who sees his life’s work slipping away.

‘In all our history, this is the worst moment for Indigenous people because the actions are coming from within the government,’ he said. ‘The elements that should be used to defend Indigenous people and defend the environment are now being used against them … Today, almost everything is in the hands of the criminals.’


  • 23 July 2022 at 1:17pm
    D'Alpoim Guedes says:
    That last sentence, "Today almost everything is in the hands of the criminals." applies to most governments. Rapacious plunder by colonists continues in the hands of corporate entities, both national and international. To change this will be an endless battle but "La lutta continua".

    • 23 July 2022 at 11:35pm
      nlowhim says: @ D'Alpoim Guedes
      Yeah that quote really sticks to the throat, doesn’t it? Though the past was bad I’m guessing that climate chaos era governments will make those times seem idyllic.