10 Questions for the Author of 'The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon'

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Complete with whizzing arrows, wild jungle treks, Conradian conundrums and clashing cultures, author Monte Reel's saga, "The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon," chronicles in lively detail the ongoing struggle of a few lion-hearted Brazilian government agents responsible for contacting and protecting the last surviving member of an indigenous tribe in the Amazon. Reel also explores the political issues that surround Brazil's unrelenting development of the Amazon, its clouded policies toward its native peoples, and the moral dilemmas that arise wherever ranchers and indigenous tribes clash.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is Reel's philosophical prowess in delving into the mysterious psyche of a lone man who, unaware of what his life signifies to the world that boxes him in, somehow nobly persists in hanging onto a disappearing way of life.

Recently, MNN got a chance to ask Reel some questions about his book and the themes that underlie it.

MNN: Through what avenues did you come across the story of the "lone Indian," and what ultimately inspired you to chronicle it?

Monte Reel: In 2005 I was the South America correspondent for the Washington Post, and in Brasilia I met a man named Sydney Possuelo. He has been exploring the Amazon since 1959, and at the time I met him he worked for the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI. His job was to find those indigenous tribes that are isolated from regular contact with mainstream society, and then help the Brazilian government protect them from the encroachment of development.

I was sitting in Sydney’s kitchen, speaking with him about isolated tribes, when his son, Orlando, walked in. Orlando had just begun following his father’s footsteps as a field agent in FUNAI’s Isolated Indians Division, and he was returning from an expedition in southwestern Brazil. Sydney offhandedly mentioned the aim of the expedition — to track a single, isolated Indian through the forest, to try to figure out why he was alone and to keep him protected from the advance of development. I immediately was fascinated by the idea.

Over the next couple of years, every time I was in Brazil I made a point to meet the other FUNAI field agents who’d been working on the case of the lone Indian since 1996, when he was first discovered. The more I learned about this case, the more fascinating it became.

Why should people care about the plight and protection of a single man living alone in the Amazon?

I think the story of this one individual — the last surviving member of an isolated tribe — is representative of a larger story. That’s the story of life in the last wild places on Earth, and the pressures that are bearing down on the people who live in and around those areas.

Deforestation of the Amazon is a serious concern involving a host of environmental issues, ranging from the loss of biodiversity to climate change. But issues like cultural loss and genocide — similarly egregious effects of the disappearing forests — don't seem to get the same attention. Why do you think that is?

I think there are a couple of reasons, but one of the main ones is that the most vulnerable populations — the isolated or uncontacted tribes — are, by definition, very hard to study. As a result, there’s not a lot of awareness about their lives and the threats to them. The large and active network of international advocacy groups that exist to shed light on endangered species, for example, simply don’t exist when it comes to isolated tribes. Survival International, a group based in London, is more or less alone when it comes to groups trying to publicize the issue on a global scale.

One of the stories that I tell in the book involves the last surviving Spix’s macaw — a species of parrot — found in the wild in Brazil. The efforts to save the last bird were launched at the same time efforts to protect the last tribesman began. The circumstances were oddly similar: both the bird and the man were found to be threatened by encroaching development, both survivors were males without means to reproduce, both were in the Brazilian forest. In the case of the bird, a massive international effort was launched to try to save it, with lots of nonprofits from countries all over the world getting involved. The people who knew about the case of the lone Indian at the same time were trying to generate interest, but they were almost wholly ignored. It’s much harder to get the word out about these issues without an active network of groups dedicated to following them.

Do you think people are generally aware of the active genocide and murder taking place in the Amazon wherever ranchers and native tribes meet? How are these acts tolerated by Brazilian society to the degree that they are?

No, I don’t think most people are aware of it, although there are some groups now in Brazil that are trying to change that. A recent documentary produced by Vincent Carelli, who’s a central character in the book, addresses the issue directly. For years, the Brazilian legal system tended to brush these sorts of crimes under the rug, so to speak, but only in recent years have things begun to change. Recently some prosecutors have begun seeking genocide charges in these cases, with success. That’s unprecedented. So things do seem to be changing somewhat.

What is the general attitude of Brazilians (and people of other South American nations) toward the development of the Amazon? What is their level of education, awareness and activism concerning native tribes and the issues they face?

Brazilians have a complicated relationship with the Amazon, and views toward development and preservation vary wildly — the same way views on environmental issues can differ wildly in the U.S., depending on the person you’re talking to.

For decades, the Brazilian government actively encouraged people to look at the Amazon as an enormous, untapped economic opportunity, something that might push the country’s economy from the Third World to the first world. Huge-scale development projects were launched — highways, dams, etc. During that time, there was very, very little regard for the indigenous tribes. In fact, the government adopted a slogan to lure people to the region: “A land without men, for men without land.”

Then in the late 1980s, environmental activists within Brazil and around the world began working to save the rain forest from deforestation, and views slowly began to change. Today in the Amazon itself, many of the people who live there — and, consequently represent the political power structure — are those ranchers and farmers who were lured there by the government to develop the area. And many of them deeply resent the idea of outsiders campaigning to save the rain forest. A survey conducted throughout Brazil a couple of years ago found that three out of five Brazilians said they distrusted the work of international environmental groups in Brazil.

What is the current state of development in the Amazon, and in particular the Brazilian region of Rondonia, where the lone tribesman lives? What might this region look like in the future at current rates of development?

The development of Rondonia has been swift and incredibly intense. In 1970, only about 110,000 people lived there and aside from a handful of towns the state was almost entirely covered by forests. Today the population is pushing 2 million and about two-thirds of the land in the state has been cleared. Development there peaked in the 1990s, and deforestation has lessened in intensity since then — in part because there’s not a lot left to cut. Today, the major threat is illegal logging — ranchers and farmers often expand their existing territories without authorization, because enforcement of existing development restrictions has been spotty, to say the least. There are still “islands” of forest there amid the ranches and farms, like the tract of forest where the lone Indian lives. Those areas aren’t shrinking as fast as they were several years ago, but they’re getting smaller all the time.

Some might paint the issue about native tribes and the growing development that threatens them as a fundamental conflict between economics and human rights. How accurate do you think that is, and do you think this is a fair dichotomy to use in thinking about the plight of the lone tribesman?

The argument that many of the local ranchers and farmers saving a particular piece of land for a single survivor of an isolated tribe is absurd when that land — if developed — could benefit more people by providing food from crops or livestock. But if you spend a day in the Amazon, you’ll easily find huge swaths of barren wasteland, already deforested and left undeveloped. With so much idle land, the “greater good” argument for developing that specific plot of 30 square miles in Rondonia doesn’t really hold water. The only economic model in which developing it makes sense is a strictly local model. The question of who’d benefit from the clearing of that land versus preserving it boils down to two people: the individual developer and the lone Indian. I think this is well-understood by the agents who’ve fought for the Indian’s rights to that land. It’s not first and foremost an economic question, but one of human rights.

What impact would you like (or did you intend) for this book to have on its readers and, perhaps, on the fate of the lone tribesman?

In general, the subject of isolated tribes isn’t well known at all, and I just hope the book helps put the subject on the radar of a few people who might not have thought about it before. Some people in Brazil — generally those with an economic incentive in developing land — actually promote the idea that such tribes are an invention designed to thwart business interests. In fact, as I aimed to show in this book, a lot of these tribes have been thoroughly documented and their stories are pretty incredible. I think the more people who know about them, the better off they’ll be.

What can concerned people who live internationally do to assist the lone tribesman and other displaced Amazonian tribes, and help protect their land?

If people are interested in the issue, I’d suggest they check out Survival International, which has offices in the U.K. and the U.S. A lot of information about isolated and threatened tribes, in the Amazon and elsewhere, can be found on the organization’s website, www.survivalinternational.org.

Are there any updates on the status of the lone tribesman since the time of your publication?

Every few years, the Brazilian government is required to renew the decree that protects the lone Indian’s territory from development. Shortly after the book went to print, the Brazilian government renewed the protection of his land for another three years. He’s still there, alone inside that island of forest.