Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios by Holly Conklin Fitzgerald
Having grown up with towering stacks of the iconic yellow covered National Geographic just one room down the hallway from my bedroom, I spent hours poring over the shiny photographs bound within their golden spines. Often, those pictures were of peoples and places I could only dream of, imagining what life must be like in the wilds of the Amazon or the plains of the Serengeti. As a reporter for that very same geographical society, Scott Wallace was given the rare opportunity to venture into that jungle world, skirting the edges of tribes that had yet to be contacted by the outside world. The results of his journey are chronicled in The Unconquered.
Wallace joins Sydney Possuelo, a Brazilian who has devoted his life to protecting the “indios bravos” of the Amazon, on his trek into the rainforest in an attempt to map the borders of a group known as the “flecheiros.” Possuelo is dedicated to the preservation of these tribes who have had little to no contact with the world beyond their own, but his single-minded devotion comes at the expense of his fellow trekkers. He rules with an iron fist while in the jungle, which both serves to keep his motley band of travelers safe, while at the same time alienating them from him as a leader.
While telling the tale of his easy boat trip up the Amazon, his arduous trek through the forest and the difficult process of building canoes to return to civilization, Wallace also gives us an insight into the competing factions when it comes to the issue of what to do with these previously uncontacted tribes. White man (defined by Possuelo as all non-natives) brings with him innumerable diseases that kill quickly. He brings a way of life so foreign to the natives that even once introduced to it, they are rarely able to assimilate to a point of upward mobility. On the other hand, keeping medical and technological advances from these people in hopes of them retaining their current way of life could be a construed as inhumane and condescending, as those decisions may not be within the rights of the Brazilians.
Becoming friends (or at least companions) with men from several different native tribes, coming close to disaster (if not death) on several occasions and being just feet away from members of a tribe not previously seen by outsiders are just a few of the experiences Wallace has on during his time in the Amazon. The travel must have been difficult, but we rarely hear details about the day-to-day conditions. The focus of the book is definitely on the native tribes and their precarious situation, but a bit more description of the demanding hikes, the overwhelming flora and fauna, as well as his personal thoughts on the whole subject would be appreciated.
By the end of the book, we have seen Possuelo at his best and his worst. We come to see that the fight over tribal lands (taking up 11% if Brazil’s landmass, but harboring only 1% of the population) as being not only a huge gray area, but a battle with no end in sight. This ambiguity is reflected in what we learn of Wallace as a person. He attempts to inject himself into the narrative, talking about his sons and life in the US, but by the end of the book, we are left no knowing what came of several personal predicaments. This lack of a solid ending for both the natives and the author himself leaves us feeling unease about what the future holds, but anything more packaged would feel false and contrite. The National Geographic photographs from my childhood came to life at the hands of Scott Wallace in The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, which earns: