A Rumor of Savages
The call that led me from New York deep into the Amazon came one day in early June from Oliver Payne, a senior editor at National Geographic. I was settling into a summer sublet, a cavernous two-bedroom apartment on the ground ﬂoor of a gray granite building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, having just returned from several months in Brazil, where I'd been reporting on environmental devastation in the Amazon. It was that idyllic time of year when winter is a dim memory and the sun glows benevolently before the blast-furnace heat of midsummer. I was looking forward to a summer to recoup — to solidify family ties and make life decisions about where I was going to sink roots after bouncing around for so many years. At forty-seven, I felt as rootless as I'd been as the newly minted college graduate who boarded a freighter bound for South America what seemed like several lifetimes ago. Since then, my career as a journalist had led me through wars and revolutions in Central America, the rise of criminal gangs in post-Soviet Russia, and most recently, the struggles of native tribes in places as far-ﬂung as the Arctic, the Andes, and the Amazon, where indigenous people were manning the front lines against the advance of bulldozers and drill rigs that signaled the global economy's ﬁnal offensive on the planet's shrinking pockets of primordial wilderness. It sounded incredibly romantic when I told people what I did for a living, especially since I usually glossed over the part about the failed marriage, the overdrawn checking account, and the guilt I felt about my three young boys, whom I didn't see nearly enough.
But this summer would be a time to reassess and make some changes. My father had just endured near-fatal open-heart surgery, and my mother was suffering from multiple ailments; it was a wonder she was still alive. I yearned for some kind of reconciliation, to tell them before it was too late that I loved them, and that I was sorry for all the things I'd done that must have broken their hearts a thousand times. I desperately wanted to see more of my boys. To do right by my ex-wife, a wonderful woman who juggled her own career and the demands of raising three sons during my long absences, but had ultimately decided she'd endured enough of my shortcomings. And then there was Sarah, in whom I'd discovered a blend of so many qualities that I admired: a quick mind and delightful laugh, a take-no-prisoners sense of humor, an utter irreverence for all pretentiousness. Our romance was passionate, but fragile. Perhaps it was time to lay aside the ﬂeeting glories of the adventure journalist, at least for a while. Maybe it was past time to stop thinking about the next big story and to put my own tribe ahead of everyone else's.
But then there was that message from Oliver Payne. He and I had been bouncing around a story idea for National Geographic concerning the illegal timber trade, but when last we left off, Ollie had indicated that it still needed more work. So it was with more than mild surprise that I received his brief missive: "Scott, please call me ASAP."
His assistant put me through right away. "This isn't exactly about mahogany," Ollie began in his impeccable Oxford English, "but it may be something you'd be willing to take on." Was I familiar with a Brazilian Indian rights activist and wilderness scout named Sydney Possuelo? The magazine had decided to proﬁle him for a forthcoming issue, and they were in need of a writer.
Sydney Possuelo was practically a household name across wide stretches of the Brazilian backwoods, a name murmured with reverence by the tribal populations he defended and with malice in equal measure by ranchers, loggers, and miners who sought to plunder therainforest' rainforest's riches. He was among the last great explorers of the Amazon, known to lose himself and his men for months at a time in its depths. "Sure, I said. "I know him."
I'd met Possuelo ten years before at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, he was president of Brazil's Indian affairs agency, the National Indian Foundation, known by its Portuguese acronym, FUNAI. He'd just presided over a monumental and herculean task: the expulsion of thousands of wildcat gold prospectors from the jungle homelands of the Yanomami, followed by the demarcation of a Maine-size reserve to protect the natives. It was the largest Indian reserve ever created in the history of Brazil, carried out despite howls of protest from powerful developers and enormous logistical challenges, the operation requiring surveyors to hack a physical boundary around the territory's entire perimeter. I couldn't dredge from memory the details of that distant conversation with Possuelo, but I did recall a hawk like beak, balding head, and thick auburn beard — and his uncanny resemblance to artistic depictions of Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard who made South American rivers run red with Indian blood. His mission to save Brazil's Indians could not have been more diametrically opposed to Pizarro's. Yet, I recalled detecting a whiff of the same volcanic fury bubbling up through Possuelo's controlled discourse that had stirred the conquistador to sack the Incas' empire and put them to the sword.
Ollie explained that Possuelo was to lead an expedition into one of the least-explored redoubts of the Amazon, the rainforest homeland of a mysterious group known as the ﬂecheiros, or "People of the Arrow," a tribe still uncontacted by the outside world. Few if any outsiders had ever traversed the heartland of the Arrow People and lived to tell the tale. Possuelo intended to. He needed to gather vital information about the tribe: the extent of its wanderings, the relative health of its communities, the abundance of game and ﬁsh in the deep forest where the people lived. Possuelo needed to demonstrate that the policies he'd fought so hard to enact were actually working, that tribes like the Arrow People were thriving in isolation and were far better off than they'd be under any scheme to integrate them into mainstream modern society. Positive results would bolster his support in the capital, Brasília, at a moment when pressure was building to roll back protection of Indian lands across the Amazon to generate jobs and proﬁts. We'd be on the lookout for trespassers — loggers, poachers, even drug trafﬁckers — proﬁteers large and small whose presence could pose a mortal threat to the tribe. Arrests were a possibility.
Excerpted from The Unconquered by Scott Wallace. Copyright 2011 by Scott Wallace. Reprinted by permission of Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.