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Delayed Indigenous ‘Man of the Hole’ burial reveals dispute over his land

A photo taken of the Indigenous Tanaru man by a Funai official in 2018.

A photo taken of the Indigenous Tanaru man by a Funai official in 2018. Funai agents monitored his well-being from afar to ensure he was safeguarded from possible attacks from land invaders. Image courtesy of Funai.

  • A court ruling ordered Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai to bury the remains of the Indigenous Tanaru man, known as the “Man of the Hole,” three months after his death, following 26 years of solitude as the last member of his tribe.
  • Critics accuse Funai’s president, Marcelo Xavier, of working in favor of local agribusiness interests by deliberately stalling the funeral to help farmers claim the rights to the land.
  • The delay of his burial was partly due to a debate over what will happen to the land where the Indigenous man lived, which is covered in Amazon rainforest and is currently protected by a restriction of use ordinance until 2025.
  • The Federal Public Ministry and Amazon activists call for the land to be permanently preserved, while local farmers claim they are the owners and demand the restrictions of use be revoked to allow for agricultural expansion.

For 26 years, the last member of the Tanaru people resisted contact and lived alone in his protected land in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Ranchers and miners had massacred his family members in the early 1990s, and little was known about the secretive man other than his habit of digging 3-meter- (9.8-foot-) deep pits for shelter and hunting, earning him his nickname “Man of the Hole.”

On Aug. 23, he was found dead in a hammock in a state of decomposition. Onsite analyses concluded that the colorful macaw feathers surrounding the body indicated that the man had prepared for his death and he’d died from natural causes.

His journey, however, wasn’t over.

The remains were sent to Brasília for a month of further postmortem examinations before being returned to the northern state of Rondônia for the burial scheduled on Oct. 14. On the eve of the funeral, Marcelo Xavier, the president of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, postponed the burial without determining another date, claiming more examinations were required.

Xavier’s decision opened another chapter of a land dispute that shows no signs of ending soon.

Indigenous advocates claim Xavier impeded the burial in an attempt to grant farmers the rights to the protected Tanaru reserve. Burying the remains in the territory would ensure the land’s protected status, making it difficult for farmers to exploit the area.

A rare glimpse of the face of the Indigenous “Man of the Hole.” He was the sole survivor of the Tanaru people, and his ethnicity and language remain a mystery. Image © Vincent Carelli/Survival International.

After more than three months, the Man of the Hole’s remains were finally buried Nov. 4, but only after a federal court ordered Funai to carry out the funeral. As determined by the official mandate, the body was laid to rest where it was found in the Tanaru reserve in Rondônia while regional Indigenous peoples performed the traditional funeral rites.

“The burial was only carried out after complaints in the press and a court order obtained by the Federal Public Ministry in Rondônia,” Observatory for the Human Rights of Uncontacted and Recently Contacted Peoples (OPI) said in a statement on Twitter. “Funai’s presidency created unnecessary obstacles to the burial, and farmers are already trying to take possession of the forest where the indigenous man of the hole lived.”

The Tanaru reserve where the Indigenous man lived covers 8,070 hectares (19,942 acres) of dense Amazon rainforest and is surrounded by land that has been cleared for cattle farming.

“The farmers want to take over [Tanaru’s] territory,” Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, who leads the Kanindé Ethno-Environmental Defense Association, an organization that defends the rights of Indigenous people, told Mongabay by phone. “They tried to destroy the forest where he lived all the time. They didn’t want to let [Funai] bury him in this land because they wanted to take possession of it.”

Spanning an area of 8,070 hectares (19,942 acres), the Tanaru reserve is a protected area in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, near the border of Bolivia. Image from Google Earth.

‘Immediate revocation’

On Oct. 25, two months after his body was found, the Federal Public Ministry filed a public civil action against Funai demanding the burial of the remains within 48 hours. In response, Funai submitted documents stating that local farmers claim they own the Tanaru land and call for “the immediate revocation of the ordinances restricting the use of the site.”

The reserve is not demarcated as an Indigenous territory, despite calls from Indigenous rights groups to permanently preserve the land, but it is safeguarded with a Restriction of Use and Entry Ordinance issued by Funai until 2025 to protect the Tanaru’s land. It’s this ordinance that the farmers now want to overturn.

“The affectation of the area occurred solely due to the presence of the isolated Indigenous man, in accordance with the law,” claimed the farmers’ argument presented in the court documents. “Therefore, his death causes usufruct and the affectation of the area to disappear, and possession must be resumed for the individuals who own the possession or domain.”

The land was protected because of the Indigenous man’s presence there, according to José Augusto Sampaio, anthropologist and associate of National Association of Indigenist Actions (ANAI). “With his death, this ordinance, in terms of its original purpose, would no longer make sense,” Sampaio told Mongabay by phone. “That’s why Funai tried to bury him somewhere other than there, to free up those areas for occupation of economic and agribusiness interests in the region.”

Satellite images reveal the extent of deforestation around the Tanaru Indigenous reserve from 1984 (left) to 2020 (right). Image from Google Earth.
Very little is known about the “Man of the Hole” other than his habit of digging 3-meter- (9.8-foot-) deep holes that were used for hunting, shelter, and possibly religious rituals. Image © Vincent Carelli/Survival International.

Xavier, who was appointed Funai’s president in 2019 by current President Jair Bolsonaro, has been met with stinging criticism in the past from Indigenous rights advocates who said that Xavier favored the development of agribusiness over the protection of Indigenous rights.

“Marcelo is an ally of the farmers,” Francisco Loebens, a regional support team agent with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay by phone. “[His appointment] transformed Funai to be at the service of the landholders, and not the protection service of Indigenous people’s territory, which is the purpose it was created for.”

Funai did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

On Nov. 3, federal judge Samuel Albuquerque ruled that Funai had five days to provide “all administrative actions necessary for the burial” while respecting “the Indigenous social organization, customs, beliefs and traditions.” He argued that officials in Brasília had no need for the Indigenous man’s remains, as they had already collected all the samples required for further examination. In the same statement, Albuquerque condemned Funai for “the disrespect shown to the Indigenous man, denoted by the excessive holdup in his burial.” Funai complied and buried the man the next day.

Since the burial, the future of the Tanaru’s land has remained open. The Federal Public Ministry recommended that the land be permanently preserved, meaning it cannot be open to ranching, logging, or mining. Several Indigenous movements, including Survival International and OPI, support that decision and have called for the Tanaru reserve to be protected as a memorial to Indigenous genocide and maintained as an environmental conservation area.

“The Indigenist movement calls for the conversion of the burial site into an environmental preservation area to protect the natural environment of this region,” Sampaio said.

“The environment in the area where the Indigenous man lived is very preserved,” he added. “Protecting it is something extremely necessary for the region, which has already been devastated by deforestation.”

On Jan. 1, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will take office as the new Brazilian president. During his campaign, Lula promised to protect Indigenous territories and create a new ministry of Native peoples. Marcelo Xavier is likely to be fired in the first week of January.


Banner image: A photo taken of the Indigenous Tanaru man by a Funai official in 2018. Funai agents monitored his well-being from afar to ensure he was safeguarded from possible attacks from land invaders. Image courtesy of Funai.

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