January 20, 2019

The Dignity of Uncontacted Tribes

“By some estimates, there are more than 100 “uncontacted tribes” in Brazil, mostly in the western reaches of the Amazon rainforest. These are indigenous peoples who live beyond the direct control, and sometimes knowledge, of the Brazilian state. Their groups vary in size but are, in many cases, quite small. Researchers from funai—the Brazilian government agency that upholds indigenous rights—released footage in July of a single man who continues to live on his 8,000 hectare territory by himself. Dubbed “the Man of the Hole” for his practice of digging deep pits, he is the sole survivor of a tiny tribe attacked by ranchers in the 1990s. Little is known about the man himself: not his name, or the name of his vanished people, or the language he speaks. He avoids contact with outsiders, insisting on leading his solitary life in the forest in which he plants vegetables, forages, hunts, and manages to survive.

That he can live in this way is a measure both of his fortitude and of the effect of Brazilian laws that protect his territory from economic development. Approximately 13 percent of Brazil’s land area is reserved for indigenous peoples, including huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Without those regulations, farmers, ranchers, loggers, and miners would gobble up the land. funai sent a team to film the Man of the Hole not out of curiosity, but out of necessity; the agency needed proof that he was alive and healthy to renew the protections around his territory.

The documentary Piripkura, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, follows a similar funai mission, in search of the Piripkura people, a tribe that consists of only two men, Pakyî and Tamandua. The uncle and nephew maintain a nomadic existence in the rainforest of the western state of Mato Grosso, hemmed in by ranches and farms. They boast “ninja” survival skills, according to the expedition leader, Jair Candor.”

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