Monday, July 19, 2010

Lone Man in the Amazon by Monte Reel

It began with a rumor, a scrap of information picked up by a health worker delivering antimalarial medicine in the scattered villages of southern Amazonia. In the middle of 1996, he stopped at a lumber-yard in Brazil's Guapore River Valley, near the Bolivian border. Loggers there spoke of a wild man who roamed the surrounding rain forest, which they occasionally ventured into in search of mahogany trees. The man was a naked savage, they said, probably an Indian. But he didn't seem to be part of any tribe. From what they could see, he lived alone in a tiny thatched hut, with no apparent ties to another human soul.

That's where the story dead-ended. The few who claimed to have caught a glimpse of the man said he was as quick and crafty as a jaguar – get near him, and he'd vanish into the forests' dappled shadows. Describing encounters with him apparently was like trying to remember an elusive dream: they were pretty sure it happened, but couldn't quite grasp the details.

It was a flimsy splinter of jungle lore, but it stuck with the health worker when he left the lumberyard and eventually made his way to the town of Vilhenas, where Brazil's federal agency in charge of Indian affairs maintained a regional outpost. He previously had met the man who ran the office, Marcelo dos Santos, while delivering medicines to one of the regions indigenous reserves.

If anyone could dismiss the rumor outright and label it a tall tale unworthy of a second thought, it was Marcelo. His job was to locate Indian tribes that remained isolated in the forest, completely cut off from the main current of Brazilian society. His small team of field agents was called the Guapore Contact Front, on of five regional teams within the Isolated Indians Division of Brazil's National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI. The Isolated Indians Division was less than a decade old, created just before the country ratified a new constitution in 1988. The new national charter specified that if Indians lived on a patch of forest, that land was theirs - not a single tree could be touched by an a outsider.

But a fundamental shortcoming threatened to completely undermine the documents intentions: no one knew how many tribes actually lived in Brazil's massive portion of the Amazon, or how much land they could potentially could claim. So if a rancher had a natural incentive to chase the Indians off the property- by various means including murder- before the government could document their presence. The contact fronts were created to defuse the threat of clashes between settlers and tribes. They were often attacked by both sides!

When Marcelo received the rumor about the spectral wild man believed to be an Indian, he paid special attention....

In October 2006,with a collection of a decades worth of field notes and fresh evidenced amassed from the jungle- huts and pitfalls, tracks and planted cornstalks, collections of edible nuts and fruits, axe cuts into various trees for various gathering purposes- the renamed Guapore Ethno-Environmntal Protection Front went to FUNAI president Mercio Gomes with a formal proposal for the creation of a thirty-one-square mile Tanaru Indigenous territory, which the they named for the river that ran through it. They suggested that if the reserve was approved, the Guapore Protection Front would establish a camp of the border of the territory and conduct monthly surveys to make sure the Indian was alive and well. Under no circumstances would they attempt to directly interact with the Indian, they wrote, unless the Indian himself initiated contact. The reserve would be meaningless if they didn't establish conditions not only to protect his land but also to give him peace.

In Brasila, the government agencies leadership didn't have to debate their pitch too long. Marcelos dos Santos was by this time in charge of dealing with the request. His intimate knowledge of the situation- including long legal battles which had eventually forced him to flee Rondonia- equipped him to make a convincing argument that the man was endangered and in need of protection. The shooting of Tunio in one encounter with the lone Indian had also raised the case's profile ; the only question was whether the Indian represented a “tribe” that FUNAI could legally protect After reviewing the case, the agency's attorney general issued his opinion in the final weeks of 2006.

“A single individual can be considered a 'people' if he is the only remnant of his culture and ethnic group, and is distinct from the national collective in his customs and traditions”, declared Luiz Fernando Villares.

To quash the temptation for anyone to simply kill the Indian to open up the land for development, the agency's director of agrarian affairs prepared an explanation for local ranchers.

“The land is property of the Union (Brazil), and must remain so until the end of the Indian's life,” said Nadja Binda, “ in the case of his death, the property will continue to be the property of the Union.”

With Marcelo's prodding, the customary bureaucratic delay of a year or more for the declaration of new indigenous territories was avoided. In January 2007, less than a month after the request, the Brazilian government made it official. The borders of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory were demarcated. The territory would be up for reviewed in a few years, but Marcelo and Algaer Altair finally succeeded in establishing a zone of protection for a man they had never really met and whose language they could not have understood.

The suddenness of the resolution almost felt anti climatic, and perhaps it was appropriate. It was a victory , but what had the Indian won? Protection, certainly, but no matter how much land they reserved for him, there was no bringing back the rest f his tribe. All that they could do was respect the right that Marcelo had identified years before: the right to die alone.

As long as the Indian stayed within the thirty-one-square-mile zone, they believed he would be safe. For their part, they resolved to do nothing to chase him away.

In cities such as Seoul and Tokyo, more than one-million people live in the average thirty-one-square- mile plot of land. In Manhattan and its immediate surrounding, the same area houses 2.5 million people. If a thirty-one square-mile area were populated as the same levels as the most crowded parts of Kong Kong about 6.1 million people would live there.

The Tanaru Indigenous Territory has a population on 1 ; a triumph for the individual, culture and humanity itself, for those for feel no injustice however seeming insignificant ought to be tolerated, and of ever lasting glory to the government of Brazil. Viva Brazil!

“The Last of The Tribe; The Quest To Save A Lone Man in The Amazon by Monte Reel; Scribner, NY 2010


  1. FUNAI and the contact group spent many years tracking through the jungle trying to meet the lone man. In every hut they found, temporary or more permanent, they found a five foot deep, 35 inch wide pit with a contraption indicating that a hammock had been slung over the opening in which the man slept. At the bottom of the pit they found some specially carved sticks of palm wood. This sort of pit was characteristic of no other known tribe in the Amazon. At one point they found a whole village ( five or so huts- recently burned and bulldozed by nearby ranchers- all with these peculiar pits. Furthermore, on the several occasions when they were actually able to come close to the man, he did not respond to any of the words or gestures of any of the other local tribesmen brought along in the hopes that some communication with the man could be established. On this basis it was determined the man represented a distinct, previously unidentified tribal culture.

    Once they were able to video-tape images of the lone man as he hid in one of his huts holding members of the contact group at bay with his bow and arrow, with which he seriously wounded one member who came too close.

    They often left food and tools for the man. He eventually took an ax and a machete but never touched the food which is not surprising because ranchers often left food for tribesmen laced with rat poison. Often he would simply destroy whatever was left behind.

  2. Great story. Tragic in that he is the only one left of his tribe. May he live a long life and continue to find something to believe in.