Tribe’s Lone Survivor Glimpsed in Amazon Jungle, Healthy and at Work

The Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs agency released footage of the man in Rondônia. The agency said that he is the sole surviving member of his tribe after the rest were attacked over 20 years ago.

RIO DE JANEIRO — The lone survivor of an isolated tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, monitored and assisted from afar by the government for decades, looks healthy in a rare new video released this week, which shows him swinging an ax at a tree.

Anthropologists say the man, who is believed to be in his 50s, has lived on his own in the jungle in Rondônia State since other members of his tribe died in the 1990s, probably killed by ranchers.

He has become a symbol of the resilience of the more than 100 isolated communities estimated to survive in remote parts of Brazil, under pressure as farmers, miners and loggers push further into the Amazon jungle.

The National Indian Foundation, or Funai, a government agency that supports indigenous communities, tried to establish contact with the man a few times, starting in 1996. But he has responded to outsiders with hostility. In 2005, he wounded a Funai official by firing an arrow.

Since then, the government has chosen to help the mysterious man from afar, leaving tools and seeds for him to grow crops, and seeking to keep invaders from his habitat, which is a protected indigenous territory.

Funai recorded the man at a distance in the new video. Videos such as these are made to justify the legal and regulatory protections that are extended to indigenous territories.

Altair Algayer, a Funai official who has been involved in monitoring the man and safeguarding his territory, said he has marveled at the survivor’s determination.

Credit...Brazil Photos/LightRocket, via Getty Images

“This man, who is a mystery to us, has lost everything, his people, a series of cultural practices,” Mr. Algayer said in a statement. “Yet, he has proven that, despite being all alone in the jungle, it’s possible to survive and resist joining mainstream society.”

For decades, anthropologists and indigenous activists have debated whether they should seek to establish contact with isolated tribes to vaccinate them against diseases that could quickly wipe out isolated communities.

Since the late 1980s, the Brazilian government has sought to contact isolated tribes only if it believes they are in imminent danger.

Experts say protecting isolated tribes is ever more challenging.

“The problem is that there are no empty spaces in the Amazon,” said José Carlos Meirelles, a former Funai official who has been working with isolated tribes since 1971. “You fly over it and see all that forest, but down there, it’s full of people — drug dealers, illegal loggers and others.”

Fiona Watson, the research and advocacy director at Survival International, a group that advocates for the protection of isolated communities, said she hopes the new video will bolster efforts to shield indigenous territories.

“He looks healthy, which is very encouraging,” she said. “He has survived this long in a very violent frontier region of the Amazon.”

Budget cuts have forced Funai to shut down monitoring posts in remote areas and its installations have come under attack as miners and loggers have forged deeper into the Amazon. The post responsible for monitoring the lone survivor was ransacked in 2009.

Ms. Watson said the man in the video embodied the right to self-determination that the world’s last isolated people should be entitled to.

“He is the ultimate symbol of resilience and resistance,” she said. “But we are witnessing genocide in real time. Once he’s gone, his people will have disappeared forever, along with all their history and knowledge. To me, that’s a huge loss, and one that can and must be stopped.”

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