Scott Wallace: The Unconquered
In his 30-year career as a reporter, Scott Wallace covered wars and revolutions in Central America and the struggles of native tribes in places as far-flung as the Arctic, the Andes and the Amazon.
Recently the American was invited to talk about how to seek out original, compelling, character-driven stories to journalism majors at New York University Shanghai.
In June 2002, Wallace took a call from National Geographic magazine, asking him if he was interested in doing a profile of Sydney Possuelo, a Brazilian Indian rights activist who was about to go on an expedition deep into the Amazonian rainforest.
Home to the largest tropical rainforest on Earth, the Amazon Basin is one of the critical battlegrounds in the fight to curb environmental devastation. Its indigenous communities are just starting to be understood as key players in that equation and the remote part of the Amazon, which Possuelo was about to explore, was where most of those tribes lived.
His mission was to gather more information about the Arrow People, a mysterious tribe known for its tendency to unleash poison-tipped darts at all intruders before melting back into the forest.
“The Arrow People are widely feared for their violent treatment of outsiders,” Wallace says.
During the three-month expedition, Wallace uncovered clues as to who the Arrow People might be, how they had managed to endure as one of the last unconquered tribes, and why so much about them must remain shrouded in mystery if they were to survive.
“Well, it certainly changed my life. I have become more of an advocate for indigenous people, and for vulnerable populations,” Wallace says.
After the expedition, Wallace took on other assignments all over the world but he had always wanted to write a book about his Amazon experience.
In 2009 he began to gather background material at the US Library of Congress and the National Library of Brazil, where he had access to the archives of the National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, the agency charged with protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
His book, “The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes,” was published in 2011. Wrapped in a page-turning tale of adventure, the book reveals the critical battleground in the fight to save the planet as it has rarely been seen.
“I would say it is non-fiction, but still an adventure story, with some historical and intellectual weight,” Wallace says. “When we think about it, what is more important than having a healthy environment? The environment is really our life-support system. All these other things such as wars, crimes, to me they are secondary stories. The main one is our survival and survival of the planet, the survival of the species that we share the planet with. This journey led me to a greater understanding of that.”
Q: Can you elaborate a bit more on the reasons behind the expedition led by Sydney Possuelo in 2002 into the Amazon?
A: Sydney Possuelo, at that time, was president of Brazil’s Indian affairs agency, a department with the National Indian Foundation. He went on to pioneer Brazil’s “no-contact” policy since the late 1980s, of which the purpose was transformed — from “contact to save” to “save without contact." Both the policy and his department represented a monumental shift in Brazil’s treatment of its “wild Indians.”
He saw the expedition as a way of showing the flag, asserting government authority, and his own, over a vast region that was largely unknown to everyone other than the tribal people who lived there.
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 these people lived. He wanted 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.
Q: Can you describe the most amazing thing you sensed deep down in the rainforest?
A: The deeper you go, the clearer the water becomes. Incredibly, even in the jungle, you can dip your cup into the water and drink it directly. It’s pure. As we go further down into the rain forest, it’s quite extraordinary that only 3 percent of the sunlight actually filters down through the jungles canopy and reaches the forest’s floor.
I have this sense especially in the middle of the day that all insects die down. You can’t hear the bugs or insects buzzing or the croaking of the frogs like you do in the evening and in the morning. In the middle of the day it is super quiet.
In some parts, the trees are so high as if they were Roman columns rising up of the forest floor. There is the thin light penetrating down, together with the super quietness in the middle of the day, it feels like we were walking at the bottom of the Amazon ocean.
Q: What’s the significance of protecting the indigenous culture in the Amazon rainforest?
A: For millennia, isolated tribes in the Amazon rainforest have thrived on traditional lifestyles. They hunt, they fish, they make their clothing and build their homes with everything from the forests. They are living almost completely independently from our industrialized economy. Hard to believe it, but they are still there.
Their lands could be seen holding back a rising tide of rainforest destruction. These people have understood how to develop the rainforest without destroying it — something we haven’t figured out until this day. Besides, ethnobotanists are heralding the native’s prowess as knowledge keepers who had discovered the medicinal properties of hundreds of trees, plants and lianas and had safeguarded this vast repository, together with its potential for curing some of modern society’s most vexing illnesses. One thing that I want you to take away from this is that not everything has a price.
Q: How is the situation nowadays in the Amazon rainforest from your observation?
A: There is actually the Brazilian government creed, according to their constitutions in 1988, as a legal obligation to protect these tribal groups in the Amazon rainforest. But the current Brazilian government is slashing budgets to the indigenous protection agencies such as FUNAI.
To protect the area, the most efficient way of doing it is to set up the chokepoints at the strategic waterways in this territory. But these chokepoints are being abandoned for lack of funds. Many of the experienced indigenous scouts are being forced into retirement. So there have been several instances of penetration now.
In the same river that we had been running on, there were many gold diggers operating inside the indigenous territory. In 2004, since the expedition, most of them had left. But now some of them have returned and re-established their campsites where the government is not carrying out its obligations.