Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review: The Unconquered


TheUnconquered by Scott Wallace is his account of an expedition into the deepest recesses of the Amazon, on assignment for National Geographic, to confirm the existence of ‘The Arrow People’ (or ‘les flecheiros’) so that their territory may be preserved and protected. Wallace joins Sydney Possuelo; a larger-than-life figure in the history of Brazil’s endangered indigenous people, and a man who has devoted his life to saving and protecting the last of the uncontacted tribes.

‘Uncontacted’ is a bit of a misnomer because the remaining elusive tribes have fled from contact, diving deeper in the vast Amazon to escape what they know (from bitter experience) will happen: death from disease, despoliation of their territory, and the loss of their culture from ‘contamination’ by modern artifacts and an increasing dependency on them – this fate has befallen many tribes who now straddle the uncomfortable divide between totally indigenous and self-sufficient, and those who no longer can fend for themselves because they have forgotten the old ways of hunting, fishing, and making their own weapons. Brazil’s past and indeed much of the South Americas is steeped in blood, both historically and in today’s times. The devastation of the forests, the outright plundering of wildlife and natural resources of yesteryear has been tamed but not to the extent that uncontacted tribes can rest in peace and go about heir daily lives. Ever watchful, often times violent (and with good cause), they find their existence is precarious. Amazingly, drug dealers have turned to the Amazon to find passages through; entrepreneurs (in the worst sense of the word) prey on Indians  and their territory for precious woods, rare fish and animals, and gold, despite the best efforts of FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), the agency set up to protect the Indians’ rights.

I found this book hard to read for several reasons. I thought I was prepared for the tragedy unfolding between the pages, having subscribed to newsletters such as Survival International, where a dedicated organisation highlights the plight of indigenous people worldwide.  I wasn’t prepared for the litany of bloodshed and tragedy that taints Brazil’s history. The details of the horrors perpetrated by the architects of Brazil’s rubber boom verges on genocide. Colonialism in its worst form still prevails, but this time there is no outside invader: the threat comes from the vilest of Brazil’s population, those who don’t care a damn about the trail of destruction in their wake. Indigenous Indians are considered a nuisance, and expendable at that. They battle death threats, being shot at, being evicted, being hunted by people who want what is theirs by right; the invaders’ reasoning being how can a tiny percent of the country’s inhabitants (less than 1%) need so much land (11%)? We have learned very little from history when colonial invaders destroyed indigenous cultures outright and reduced their people to the horrors of dependency and/or death in the name of civilisation. People like Sydney Possuelo and the teams of dedicated ‘rangers’ deserve better support than they have received. It is an ongoing, thankless task, and one that seems doomed unless the government gets its act together.

I also found the book hard going because the actual journey is hard going. From the idyllic start of a river-borne expedition, to the utterly hellish conditions whereby the team members had to toil up inclines and down slopes, drenched and slipping in mud, plagued by ferocious insects, under threat from dangerous wildlife, having to make camp each night by hacking their way through thick foliage, facing dwindling supplies; not to mention food theft, food hoarding, and the kind of weird mentality that takes over a group ‘trapped’ in an endless round of daily trudging. One is reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in many ways as a grim madness prevails. Ironically, the team was only minutes away from civilization, had a plane been able to land, but months away from it by foot or boat.

At first I thought author Wallace was something of a moaner; he complained endlessly about everything. Then, as I wearily took up the book each night, I began to appreciate exactly what they went through, and the hideous discomforts associated with such a journey. Things such as satellite phones and the like are useless in the dense jungle, so increasingly they had to rely on themselves. Apart from the Indians amongst them who could cope, many did not. No wonder they emerged three months later wild-eyed, exhausted, and much thinner. I ultimately appreciated the mindset and thoughts the author expressed; from saying a special prayer each night, to totally doubting they would ever emerge from the impenetrable jungle. There is so much more in the book than one review can ever tell. The most significant message for me was that we have reached a tipping point where there is very little left that has not been explored, exploited, and ultimately destroyed by civilization’s need, greed, and depredation. Where will it end, one wonders? How much more can be stripped from our natural environment before we are left with the bleak, barren, infertile remnants of a once-beautiful planet? The inhospitable dystopian future so fondly depicted by movie makers and writers does not seem either far-fetched or very far away. A must-read at five stars.
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