The Most Isolated Man in the World: Brazil’s Lone Indian
Video Footage of The Last of His Tribe. Dir. Vincent Carrelli. Video Footage of The Last of His Tribe. Survival International, 3 Dec. 2009.
Deep in the Amazon rainforest lives the most isolated man in the world. Tonight, he will sleep inside a leafy hole he has dug himself in the ground, the same way he has for the past 20 years. The last surviving member of a tribe that was decimated by expansionism and “development” projects, this man represents an all-too-familiar picture in the Brazilian rainforest. Living isolated for so long makes it hard enough to survive, let alone live in one of the most aggressive environments in the world. This region is home to 10% of the animal species in the world, as well as dangerous creatures like leeches, Vipers, Piranhas, Anacondas, and the Brazilian Wandering Spider, whose bite can kill in 25 minutes. Add mosquitoes, too, that transmit malaria and yellow fever. Imagine living completely alone here, knowing that everyone close to you was steamrolled into nonexistence by developers.
Brazilian Indians have a notoriously brutal history. When Europeans first arrived in what is now Brazil, there were “an estimated 11 million Indians, living in about 2,000 tribes.” Upon contact with the Europeans, a huge number of these Indians were wiped out, mainly from diseases like smallpox and measles. The colonists were very interested in expanding, though, and took whatever measures needed to do so. The most notorious example of this is “The massacre of the 11th parallel,” in which “a rubber baron ordered his men to hurl sticks of dynamite into a Cinta Larga village.” Not stopping there, he commanded his men to go into the village and murder the survivors. This particularly brutal massacre made international headlines and led to the creation of FUNAI, Fundação Nacional do Índio, or National Indian Foundation, which is in place to protect Indians from these types of attacks.
Nevertheless, Indians (which is what Brazilians call indigenous people) are still being massacred in the forest, like the last surviving village member’s community. The Brazilian government became aware of his existence about 20 years ago when loggers in the northern country of Rondônia in the Brazilian rainforest began saying that “a wild man was in the forest, and he seemed to be alone.” He also terrorized them when they tried to work in the area. Brazilian government field agents began exploring the forest in question and found a series of huts. Each had a hole dug in the middle, where they believe he slept. The agents soon realized the lone Indian was skipping from hut to hut, abandoning each hut on a daily basis, making it nearly impossible for them to track him down. Eventually, the agents found the lone Indian. They described him as “unclothed, . . . in his mid-30s (he’s now in his late 40s [or early 50s] give or take a few years), and always armed with a bow-and-arrow.” The agents tried repeatedly to contact the Indian, but every time they encountered him, they got nowhere. With no real way to communicate, they were just outsiders to him, and after what happened to his family, they were nothing more than a threat. One particularly tense standoff with the Indian led to one of the agents being shot in the chest with an arrow.
Brazilian Indian history is not merely defined by European expansionism. People have been living in these forests for thousands of years, with culture so deep that Indians who have been contacted by frontier society often refuse to adapt. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people live in Brazil today. Similar to the lone Indian, these Indians have been dealing with the massive theft of their land by loggers and developers, and they’re being pushed farther away from their native lands. Research indicates that there are about 240 tribes living in Brazil today, totaling around 900,000 people, or 0.4% of Brazil’s population.” Even these numbers are hard to estimate because people are constantly finding uncontacted tribes. According uncontactedtribes.org, “Brazil is home to more uncontacted people than anywhere on the planet.” Thus, allowing people to mine the forest is a recipe for disaster because loggers who are mining the forest will inevitably run into some uncontacted indigenous people.
Granted, logging is not a new practice in the world, and especially not in the Amazon. It has been going on since there was a need for lumber. With the mass depletion of forests in Southeast Asia, many in the logging industry have set their sights on the Amazon. Problems arise when the loggers in the forest are not monitored. Many of them use false permits to log the areas, which is stealing from protected areas and the indigenous people who live there. Various laws are supposed to protect the indigenous people from logging practices, but when the people doing the logging aren’t following the laws, it becomes difficult to monitor who’s supposed to be where in the forest. Hence, when loggers encroach on the land of the indigenous people, they often defend themselves, sometimes by force. For instance, one tribe called the Ka’apor has taken the task of protecting their lands into their own hands, capturing and sometimes beating loggers who trespass.
The Brazilian government protects tribes by giving each of them their own piece of land to call home, as well as the laws they need to protect themselves from people who trespass onto their lands. The lone Indian in question has about 31 square miles of space all to himself. As we’ve seen, he’s perfectly capable of protecting himself from intruders.
Complications arise in situations like these, however, when the Brazilian government utilizes resources to protect indigenous tribes in the jungle when they have so many issues of their own to deal with. Brazil’s poverty is well documented. The poorest ten percent of the country accounts for only 1.2 percent of the nation’s income, and the richest ten percent account for over forty percent of the nation’s income. What this means is that the other sixty percent of the income is split among the remaining ninety percent of the population. We see this disparity in the numerous favelas, which are slums in urban Brazil. The country’s economy has been deteriorating. How can they reasonably afford to assist their exceptional number of poor people when they are also working hard to protect the thousands of indigenous peoples who are being adversely affected by logging industries in the country’s western and northern states?
Brazil needs to decide on its priorities, and many believe that protecting the livelihood and culture of one surviving Indian in a dying tribe should be lower on that priority list. It is the classic case of the needs of the few versus the needs of the many. The lone Indian seems to able to protect himself, but the Brazilian government keeps giving him more and more land in order to keep him safe. There have even been reports that they are flying a plane over his land equipped with an infrared sensor in order to better track his movements. The debate over trying to protect the lone Indian might last as long as he does.
Throughout history, countless tribes of indigenous people have been wiped out by expansionism, disease, or just time. America had its own lone Native American named Ishi. Ishi was different than the Brazilian Indian, though, because instead of being the last of his tribe, Ishi was believed to be the last uncontacted Native American, period. Ishi was discovered in 1911 when he walked out of the wilderness after nearly starving to death. Just like the Brazilians, Americans did their best to protect Ishi; however, instead of giving Ishi land to hunt and leaving him be, Americans took Ishi in and studied him in order to try to understand his culture. Needless to say, Americans might not be the best example of how to treat indigenous populations. The genocide of the American Indian is well known and highly criticized. It should be clear to the Brazilian government that allowing people to force their way through their forests, killing everything in their way without any repercussion, is not the way to do things.
Due to European expansionism, the indigenous populations of South America have been decimated. Obviously, there are legal issues surrounding what is happening in South America, and the Amazon rainforest does account for about one third of all of the carbon stored by forests. If the government wants to truly protect the indigenous people in the forests, they should attempt to keep logging to a minimum, but this seems unlikely. Still, imagine if the Lone Indian’s village had never been destroyed by logging trucks. Brazil must decide where they intend to place their strongest conservation efforts.
Currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, Richard Ellis is a 4th generation Colorado native. In his spare time, he is a musician, husband, and father.