New Internationalist

Once contacted, never conquered: heroes of the Amazon

A journalist, an expedition and the Arrow People add up to a life-changing read for David Hill

It may come as a surprise to learn that in certain parts of the world there are people living with no, or almost no, contact with the rest of us.

‘The only sure things,’ Wallace writes, ‘were sweat and peril, filth and fatigue. We were beset not only by swarms of insects and physical decrepitude, but also by relentless boredom and scheming.’

But there were moments of beauty, wonder and humour too: blue macaws crossing a river, Possuelo pretending to be a jaguar, the Matis’ persistent good cheer and brilliance in the rainforest. Wallace is especially adept at evoking his relationships with other members of the expedition, especially the cooks, who slipped him biscuits and margarine when the rest weren’t looking, and Possuelo, the ‘brooding tyrant’, for whom Wallace developed a kind of love-hate relationship.

The star-turn, though, belonged to the flecheiros. No-one in the expedition ever met them, but evidence of their existence was found and documented and the conversation was often about them. As Wallace makes clear, they’re not, contrary to popular belief, ‘pristine’ people ‘hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world’ who have never had any contact with anyone else, but ‘refugees from the violence of the global economy’ who may have had contact in the past but today choose to live without it.

In other words, more ‘once-contacted’ than ‘uncontacted’.

All about bananas
Nothing illustrates this better than Wallace’s discovery that the flecheiros cultivate sugar-cane and bananas, two crops originating in South Asia and brought to the Americas by Europeans. How can this be?

‘The plants had been traded from tribe to tribe, it turned out, adopted as staples in remote areas never seen by outsiders,’ Wallace writes. ‘The Arrow People likewise could have acquired them from other groups, perhaps generations ago. Or they could have raided the gardens of settlers in more recent times. Either way, for Possuelo, the crops signalled the depth of their resourcefulness.’

The Unconquered reads like a great adventure story, but it’s much more than that. It’s a serious, change-your-life book. Wallace wasn’t there for his health or his family life or just to see his name on a dust-jacket: it’s a plea for the entire Amazon rainforest, for the people who live there, like the flecheiros, and for the future health of our planet.

‘Everything [the flecheiros] did suggested a deliberate decision, an act of self-determination, to shut themselves off from the rest of us,’ Wallace writes, summarizing Possuelo’s reasons for the expedition. ‘The point was to let them decide if they wanted contact, on their own terms, in their own time, not to force it down their throats… What [Possuelo] offered was at once nothing and everything, something so huge and intangible they’d never know he’d even given it to them – the chance to endure, to survive another day, to replicate their way of life, a way of life that had all but vanished from the rest of the planet.’

Photo (top): JorgeBRAZIL under a CC Licence

Photo (bottom): CIAT under a CC Licence

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