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Man of the Hole

Man of the Hole

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The last member of one of Brazil’s uncontacted indigenous tribes has died. What does his story tell us about Brazil’s indigenous people?

In footage captured back in 2018, a man can be seen cutting down branches with an axe. 

He’s deep in the Brazilian rainforest…you can hear the birds and insects all around him. 

The person filming is keeping their distance, so in the video you can only see the man through a layer of leaves and undergrowth. 

They’re staying away because that man is the last surviving member of an uncontacted indigenous tribe. 

And earlier this month, he died – and with him a whole tribe passed into history. 

Very little was known about him or his culture. 

We don’t know his name, what language he spoke, or the name of the tribe he came from. 

No one had ever spoken to him. He laid traps and shot arrows at anyone who approached. 

The little we do know comes from an anthropologist called Vincent Carelli who tracked him down in 1998 – and from Brazil’s indigenous protection agency “Funai”, which has been looking out for him for 26 years. 

Because to protect his territory they needed to prove that he existed, which is why they took video clips of him, like the one you heard earlier. 

The first footage of him was filmed in the 1990s. 

A small expedition went out to look at some of the structures he built out in the forest and to see if they could find him. 

[Clip from documentary]

The man built huts from palm leaves and dug deep holes to trap animals and hide from invaders. 

Unusually, he also dug pits inside his houses. 

So the world came to know him as “The man of the hole”. 

But why had this man lived alone for nearly 25 years? 

And what does his life – and death – tell us about indigenous rights in Brazil? 

***

“The Munduruku, along with 300 other indigenous tribes, are facing their biggest threat yet. A presidential promise of logging, mining and dams.”

SBS

Over the last four years, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has waged a war on indigenous rights in the country. 

Under Brazil’s constitution, indigenous people have rights over their traditional lands.

But the president has called them “parasites”, and since he came to power in 2019 he has made it easier for loggers, mining companies and big industrial farms to exploit indigenous lands for profit. 

He has eroded environmental protection laws and installed ministers with close ties to mining and agricultural interests. 

Illegal loggers and miners, emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s policies, have murdered indigenous people trying to defend their lands. 

A group of Brazilian tribes have asked the International Criminal Court in the Hague to investigate him for crimes against humanity. 

***

Threats to the lives and territory of indigenous people are nothing new, which is why the “man of the hole” has been alone for so long..

It’s thought that the other members of his tribe were killed decades ago in attacks by local cattle ranchers who wanted the land for themselves. 

The man was vulnerable. He was the last of his tribe, his lands were surrounded by huge ranches, and his territory – and his life – were under threat from those farmers. He needed protection.

That’s why Funai established the Tanaru Reserve in the 1990s, a territory nearly 20,000 hectares in size that’s protected by an injunction called a “Land Protection Order”. 

Now that he’s dead, the reserve might disappear too…

***
With the last indigenous person gone, ranchers will probably try to move into the Tanaru Reserve. 

Environmental organisations want the legal protections on the land to remain as a “memorial” to the man who lived there – and a reminder of “the tragedy of the indigenous genocide”. 

But Jair Bolsonaro and his allies want to get rid of “Land Protection Orders” altogether. When other orders have come up for renewal they’ve lobbied to reduce the amount of land that’s protected. 

Under his leadership, illegal incursions by miners and loggers have increased and there’s little punishment for violating the injunctions…

But there is hope yet for this reserve and others like it. Brazil is going to the polls later this year … and it looks likely that they’ll vote to get rid of Jair Bolsonaro. 

His opponent, Lula da Silva, has promised to protect indigenous lands if he wins. 

If Jair Bolsonaro is defeated, there’s hope that more tribes can be protected.