The most isolated man on the planet.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 20 2010 7:08 AM

The Most Isolated Man on the Planet

He's alone in the Brazilian Amazon, but for how long?

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If you go to Rondônia today, none of the local landowners will claim any knowledge of these anecdotal massacres. But most aren't afraid to loudly voice their disdain over the creation of reserves for such small tribes. They will say that it's absurd to save 31 square miles of land for the benefit of just one man, when a productive ranch potentially could provide food for thousands.

That argument wilts under scrutiny, in part because thousands of square miles of already-cleared forest throughout the Amazon remain barren wastelands, undeveloped. The only economic model in which increased production absolutely depends on increased clearing is a strictly local one. The question of who'd benefit from clearing the land versus preserving it boils down to two people: the individual developer and the lone Indian.

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The government agents know this, which is why they view the protection of the lone tribesman as a question human rights, not economics.

He eats mostly wild game, which he either hunts with his bow-and-arrow or traps in spiked-bottom pitfalls. He grows a few crops around his huts, including corn and manioc, and often collects honey from hives that stingless bees construct in the hollows of tree trunks. Some of the markings he makes on trees have suggested to indigenous experts that he maintains a spiritual life, which they've speculated might help him survive the psychological toil of being, to a certain extent, the last man standing in a world of one.

But how long can his isolation last? I get Facebook updates telling me what people half a world away are eating for breakfast. Corporations and governments are pushing deeper and farther than ever in search of bankable resources. How can it be that no one has flushed this man out already? In 2010, can anyone realistically live off the grid?

Some Brazilians believe that the rapid spread of technology itself might protect his solitude, not threaten it. The agents who have worked on the lone Indian's case since 1996 believe that the wider the story of the man's isolation spreads—something that's easier than ever now—the safer he'll be from the sort of stealthy, anonymous raids by local land-grabbers that have decimated tribes in the past. Technologies like Google Earth and other mapping programs can assist in monitoring the boundaries of his territory. Instead of launching intrusive expeditions into the tribal territories to verify the Indians' safety, Brazilian officials have announced they will experiment with heat-seeking sensors that can be attached to airplanes flying high enough to cause no disruption on the ground.

I first heard of the lone Indian a little more than five years ago, when I was the South America correspondent for the Washington Post and was interviewing a man who headed the federal department responsible for protecting isolated tribes in the Amazon. He mentioned the man as an aside, giving me a rundown of the latest attempt to force contact with him—the expedition that ended with an agent getting shot in the chest with an arrow.

I traced a huge star and three exclamation points in the margin of my notebook as he moved onto another subject. Those flags—don't forget to come back to this!—were pointless, because I couldn't stop thinking about the lone man and those daredevil expeditions to contact him.

Now, what I keep coming back to is a little different: the lone man and the unprecedented restraint the agents are showing in choosing not to repeat history.

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