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The coveted legacy of the ‘Man of the Hole’ and his cultivated Amazon forest

The search for the Kanoê brothers produced impressive footage

The search for the Kanoê brothers produced impressive footage, which, in 1995, ended up on Fantástico, one of the most popular television shows in Brazil, and helped fuel pressure for justice. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

  • Tanaru, also known as The Man of the Hole, was an Indigenous person who survived several massacres that decimated his relatives in the state of Rondônia, in the Brazilian Amazon, in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • He was the last of his group and refused contact with non-Indigenous Brazilian society and with other Indigenous people for decades, and he died peacefully in 2022.
  • Tanaru's dramatic story was told in Corumbiara, a documentary by Vincent Carelli, who hoped to capture Tanaru’s footage to persuade the Brazilian state to recognize the land as an Indigenous territory.
  • Now Indigenous people and advocates are fighting for the Tanaru Indigenous land to remain an Indigenous territory, but ranchers want to take possession of the plot to turn it into pastures and soy fields.

One night in 1995, amid daily efforts to obtain an image of Tanaru, Indigenous expert and filmmaker Vincent Carelli had a nightmare. He dreamed that he took a safari rifle and shot a sedative dart from a distance, making the Indigenous man fall asleep. Then, he could finally film him and prove his existence.

Remembered a quarter of a century later, this bad dream reveals the dilemmas experienced by Carelli over the two decades he worked on his documentary Corumbiara.

Carelli had been trying for days to film Tanaru. His goal was to send the footage to a federal judge to prove an isolated Indigenous man was living in the middle of a forest that dwindled every day in the southern area of the Brazilian Amazonian state of Rondônia. The video could ignite the process of designating the land as an Indigenous territory, a protected status in Brazil that forbids non-Indigenous people from entering the land or exploiting it in any way.

Since the 1980s, the region has been occupied by farmers who struggled to obtain proper land titles. If authorities were ever to recognize the land as an Indigenous site, the farmers would have to leave the place. They were willing to fight with all means at their disposal.

The documentary filmmaker surrounded him with two other Indigenous experts from Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, and some recently contacted Kanoê individuals. While the Kanoê performed rituals to attract Tanaru and the Funai employees offered machetes and tools, Carelli tried to obtain the much-needed image. At one point, Carelli had an arrow shot at him, aimed at his belly — he conjectures that, feeling cornered, Tanaru took the gleaming silver of the camera for a weapon. Luckily, the arrow didn’t hit him. “Everything was crazy,” Carelli told Mongabay. “I felt bad, and, at the same time, we needed it.”

In southern Rondônia, everything and everyone seemed to conspire so that the massacres against isolated Indigenous peoples were kept in secrecy during the agricultural expansion between the 1980s and 1990s. Farmers erased evidence and Funai prevented Indigenists from returning to the region. Threats and gunmen surrounded everyday life, witnesses fled the area, and experts had to live with the constant discredit of the evidence found.

“You are being discredited by all opposing forces. So it was very important to film,” Carelli said. “The invisibility of the Indigenous is almost a strategy of the Brazilian state, isn’t it?” he pondered, in a theoretical tone elaborated through decades of unraveling this annihilation mechanism’s intricacies.

Tanaru’s footage finally captured by Vincent Carelli’s team.
Tanaru’s footage finally captured by Vincent Carelli’s team. The images proved his existence to Brazilian Justice and sparked the protection of his land. Reproduction from Corumbiara.
One of Tanaru homes.
The elusive Tanaru lived on the run as loggers advanced on the areas where he dwelled. He had to rebuild his houses, like the one in the image, from scratch several times. Image courtesy of InfoAmazonia/Survival.

Video in the villages

Vincent Carelli was already an experienced Indigenist, with years of work with Indigenous populations when he carried out what he describes as a siege to obtain an image of Tanaru. Since 1986, he had been working in the region at the invitation of Indigenist Marcelo Santos, from Funai.

At the end of the 1980s, after working at Funai and socioenvironmental NGOs to assist Indigenous populations more independently of the demands of the Brazilian state, Carelli began to develop his skills in video. “I arrived at cinema not as a proposal to make cinema, but with the primary question about the kidnapping of the memory of Indigenous peoples in museums, universities,” he said.

The video experience began in 1985. Faced with the presence of a video camera, the Nambikwara people in the Mato Grosso state decided to drill the upper lip and nose, a tradition not performed for a long time.

Carelli took the footage of the Nambikwara ritual to the Gavião people in southeastern Pará state. The images resonated among the Gavião, and they also decided to pierce their lip in front of the camera.

“They were experiencing a moment of rebirth from the ashes. And the chief there was very impacted by the images. And his first thought was to say ‘that’s what we needed,’” Carelli said, reflecting on the possibilities of using the video as part of a process of memory reconstitution.

The experience had a domino effect and grew as the Video nas Aldeias project (Video in the Villages), in which Carelli offered audiovisual training for Indigenous filmmakers to record their cultures and the political conflicts they were living and witnessing.

Today, there are more than 80 Indigenous film collectives in Brazil. “Their return was an amazing thing. The possibility of seeing our image is a very strong thing,” he said.

Vincent Carelli
Indigenous expert and filmmaker Vincent Carelli worked for over two decades on his documentary Corumbiara. With Corumbiara, Carelli wanted to send the footage to a federal judge to prove an isolated Indigenous man was living in the middle of a forest, hoping to ignite the process of designating the land as an Indigenous territory. Image by Videonasaldeias via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Working at Funai along with Carelli, Santos was involved in these innovative video experiments. At one point, Santos shared with Carelli the situation he was going through in the Corumbiara River Valley in south Rondônia. The place wasn’t very far from the Nambikwara.

Funai had appointed Santos to inspect a farm to issue a negative certificate of Indigenous people’s presence, which would guarantee the license for an enterprise to expand and put down the forest. However, rumors circulated in the region that some Indigenous people lived there in isolation, in the protected forest areas of farms, which the owners wanted to eradicate. “Marcelo went on that mission, arrived at the farm, talked to the workers who told him: ‘Hey, not here, but over there, it looks like they shot some Indians,’” Carelli said. It was unclear which population was targeted by the bullets.

Santos denounced the situation as genocide to Funai and went on to pursue his investigation in the forest. Rondônia’s prosecutor’s office and the Federal Justice were also informed. “But the investigation didn’t take off; it was nipped in the bud,” Carelli said. A Federal Police officer in charge of the investigation went on a helicopter with the owner of the farm where the massacre had presumably occurred. The farmer convinced the officer that the straw tents seen from above were not from Indigenous groups, but from rubber tappers. “Well, the rubber tappers left the region in the 1950s. Who knows where the farmer took the officer?” Carelli asked.

He also remembers that the officer told him that there would be no investigation because no bodies were found. Santos was then prevented from returning to the region and delving into history and decided to invite Carelli to use his camera to bypass Funai’s decision. Camera in hand and accompanied by Nambikwara Indigenous people who were at the lip-piercing festival, Carelli had no doubt about what he saw when he arrived at the site. “Right there we unearthed pottery, an ax handle, a whole series of objects. Whoever did the job may have done it badly because they even left several bullet capsules there,” Carelli said.

In addition to the crime scene, the Indigenous individuals in the group realized that they were in a recently inhabited part of the forest due to the abundance of annatto plants, used for daily painting. “We didn’t have proof built yet, but the conviction we had there,” Carelli said.

Nambikwara lip-piercing festival.
Nambikwara lip-piercing festival. Faced with the presence of a video camera, the Nambikwara people decided to drill the upper lip and nose, a tradition not performed for a long time, and the images resonated among other Indigenous groups. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

Waves of occupation

Since the 1970s, Rondônia was experiencing the consequences of a chaotic and violent process of land occupation, deforestation and violence as a result of Brazil’s military dictatorship policy. The promise of land distribution to poor workers from other regions of Brazil didn’t consider which lands could be productive for Western-style agriculture. These plots had alarming deforestation rates, impoverished rural workers and land concentration. A process that relied on violence against Indigenous peoples from start to finish.

“There were waves of occupation in Rondônia in the 1970s and 1980s,” Amanda Villa, an anthropologist who studies Indigenous populations in voluntary isolation in Rondônia, told Mongabay. “The great propaganda was that it was about the occupation of empty spaces. That was the promise sold by the state. That’s where the big problem starts”, said Villa, a member of the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI).

Much of Rondônia’s violence was brought by the highway BR-364, which crosses the state. Its construction started in 1960 by former President Juscelino Kubitschek, but “the final barrier” to the occupation of the state, in the words of the researcher, occurred when it was fully paved at the end of the dictator General João Figueiredo’s administration, in 1983.

“There were people asking for agrarian reform. There were a lot of people in need of land. So let’s bring them to places where there is a land without people,” Villa said. “The state deliberately scrutinized the lots. Regardless of what was in these lots, despite this Indigenous occupation. And that was the recipe for agrarian conflicts.”

The people who went to Rondônia searching for a better life were mostly landless rural workers with difficult living conditions. The journey to the Amazon was challenging. It lasted days, often with entire families subjected to all kinds of uncertainties and exposed to bad weather conditions. Once in the rainforest, efforts were concentrated on plowing their land as best they could. But suddenly they were faced with Indigenous peoples occupying the area, according to Villa.

“Would the settlers risk losing their land?” she asked. Shortly afterward, these small distributed plots were sold to individuals with greater purchasing power, and the migrants who mainly came from the south of the country became farmhands instead of farm owners.

Funai’s role in the military dictatorship was centered on issuing certificates attesting to the absence or presence of Indigenous peoples in the plots. That was the great fear of the migrants: “With fear of not getting clearance certificates from Funai, landowners tried to get ahead in this process of social extermination. ‘Let’s make sure that there are no more Indians here,’” Villa explained.

The situation worsened with the project Polonoroeste, implemented in the 1980s with financial support from the World Bank and under the initiative of the military dictatorship. The researcher explained that the program sought to promote the region’s development, including the opening of roads aimed at agricultural expansion. It was then that Santos and Carelli tried to investigate the massacres.

Rondônia's landscape in the 1980s.
Rondônia’s landscape in the 1980s. Brazilians from the southern states migrated to Rondônia to occupy “empty spaces,” as promised by the state. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

Wrestling with Tanaru

Amid these massacres, Carelli’s camera was a kind of weapon: a technology to capture clues of crimes searching for justice. But it was no easy task.

The police commissioner involved in investigating the massacre agreed that Carelli’s footage revealed traces of a crime, but, without finding the bodies, it was impossible to prove a crime had even occurred. The mission was particularly challenging because the supposed victims were part of groups that avoided contact with surrounding Brazilian society.

In 1986, Carelli and his partners were prohibited from entering the land. The farmers’ lawyers, claiming that a report from Funai found no evidence of Indigenous presence in the region, persuaded a judge to recognize the land as private property, and the Indigenists-turned-documentarians had to halt the investigation.

Carelli was then, and remains, driven by an unshakable thirst for justice: “I still hope that one day someone decides to say where the bodies were buried in that place we visited,” he said. “That was a very explicit and clear genocidal action. But the bodies were not found. What happened to these bodies? Are there any witnesses? No one does this kind of thing alone. To this day, I hope these bodies will show up.”

Carelli returned to the region nine years later, in 1995, when Santos was given a new position at Funai to deal with Indigenous peoples in isolation. They also obtained judicial warrants to enter previously restricted farms they considered the most suspicious. The crew found a different Rondônia. A large part of the forest had already been cut down, and big farms were opened.

It was on one of these trips that Carelli and Santos finally managed to contact an isolated group: the Kanoê Indigenous people of the Omerê River. Over weeks, the Indigenists have made attempts to establish communication. Those were among the most impactful scenes of Corumbiara.

The Kanoê of the Omerê River were a small remaining group. But they weren’t the remnants of the attack Carelli had heard about in 1985. The Kanoê had been expelled from that region in the 1940s and taken to Guajará-Mirim, around 500 kilometers (310 miles) away. The group Carelli encountered were descendants of those who had managed to escape.

Two Kanoê brothers, Txinamãty and Purá, performed rituals to attract Tanaru.
Two Kanoê brothers, Txinamãty and Purá, performed rituals to attract Tanaru. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

The Indigenists asked for an interpreter from Guajará-Mirim to help, one of the last in that community and met two Kanoê brothers: Txinamãty and Purá. The two brothers still live on the Rio Omerê Indigenous land today.

When they gained the Indigenists’ trust, they took them to another group, the Akuntsu, the actual victims of the massacre perpetrated nearly one decade before.

Carelli, Santos and Altair Algayer, a Funai regional coordinator, were finally able to partially understand the massacre they had been investigating nine years earlier. They estimated that 10 Akuntsu were killed. Two of the Akuntsu survivors had bullet marks on their bodies. The violence at the time was so intense that Villa made a sad remark: “In that region, it has been very common to contact Indigenous peoples with marks, or even bullets, in their bodies”, Villa said.

The search for the Kanoê and the Akuntsu produced impressive images, which, in 1995, ended up on Fantástico, one of the most popular television shows in Brazil, and helped fuel pressure for justice.

The footage and testimonies were essential to support a lawsuit that recognized the area as the Akuntsu’s Indigenous land. “At the time, we were able to obtain an interdiction from the Federal Court, since Funai took too long to take measures to protect and keep the ranchers away,” Carelli said.

During the investigation, a rumor emerged: An isolated Indigenous person was living in the forest area of a farm who had the habit of digging holes. “This is always the first step to discover that there are Indigenous peoples there who are still unknown or in isolation. Someone, like farm workers, will always comment that they saw someone in the woods,” Amanda Villa said.

This man could provide new clues to reconstitute the crimes against the Indigenous people in the region. They had to investigate.

Back in the 198os, the search for survivors in the thick forest “was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” the filmmaker recalled. Now, the growing deforestation in the region was an advantage in finding an isolated Indigenous person. In addition, access to GPS and satellite images made it possible to identify small deforestation.

The Indigenous experts also had a reasoning. They would focus on the farms they were forbidden to access — a sign that something was worth investigating. Using satellite images, they identified a small atypical deforestation in the middle of the forest. Usually, to deforest, farmers use the dry season to burn the remaining undergrowth after cutting down the larger trees. However, the deforestation identified occurred in the Amazonian winter — the rainy season. And therefore, it didn’t seem to indicate the intention to burn a large area to open farms.

“This deforestation was completely suspicious, just by analyzing the satellite photo,” Carelli said. “We got there and discovered that it was the site of Tanaru. He had many holes, including very large ones. The bulldozer had razed everything and had tried to plug some of those holes. And I found out that it was a place that had obviously been occupied for a long time.”

Map of Rondoni and Tanaru

It looked like a whole Indigenous village had been destroyed. It had been burned, the trees destroyed, and a bulldozer had run over the structures.

The concentration of holes and houses built in a small area led the team to conclude that someone or a group lived there — it was impossible to know. They also noticed that this person or group had built many hunting traps, “deep holes with skewers: The wild pigs would pass over foliage, sink and die there already skewered.” It was, they had no doubt, an inhabited forest.

“Everything indicates that there was more than one person due to the size of the area, the size of the house, and the number of holes, which made these people so characteristic,” Villa said. For the anthropologist, these characteristics indicated an entire Indigenous village.

In addition to the clues found in the woods, Carelli discovered a witness of a shooting: the cook at the inn where he was staying, located in the nearest municipality, Chupinguaia. “She had been hired to cook for the loggers during the winter. And she was terrified, telling me that the owner of Modelo Farm had hired a henchman to shoot Tanaru,” Carelli said.

The filmmaker found himself in a dilemma: He had recorded the cook’s confession with a hidden camera, but he knew disclosing the image would put her life at risk. The atmosphere was tense. In a small town in the south of Rondônia, the presence of a stranger hardly goes unnoticed. One of the inn’s employees recommended Carelli avoid using the public telephone every night.

It was at this time that Carelli had the nightmare. He also had nightmares of being persecuted by henchmen, and Marcelo Santos dreamed of tractors passing over Tanaru’s houses, making it impossible to prove that he lived there. To Carelli’s relief, the cook and her husband disappeared. They left without notifying anyone of their departure or even where they were going.

During the search, the Indigenous experts were concluding that only one man had survived the massacre. “He was most likely a survivor of this attack in the mid-90s. Possibly the last members of his people, but most likely he had to flee and see his family being exterminated,” Villa said. “Most likely because here we are talking about a person we can never listen to. So all we can say about him is what we can access through these traces,” she said.

A team led by Altair Algayer was collecting clues. And the most significant trace Tanaru left behind was holes he had dug in the floor of every little house.

The elusive Man of the Hole lived on the run. As loggers advanced on the areas where he dwelled, the Indigenous man fled for another location in the forest and had to rebuild his home from scratch. Carelli, Santos, Algayer and the Kanoê Indigenous people found shacks after abandoned shacks. When they got too close, Tanaru would hit the tree with a club as if to say “I’m here, I can see you, don’t approach.”

One day, after more than six long hours of searching, the team finally saw Tanaru, but he refused contact. “He was completely cornered there,” Carelli said. Besides the three Indigenous experts, there were also three Indigenous Kanoê trying to communicate with him, making it difficult for Tanaru to run away. “He was terrified.”

Tanaru armed his bow and pointed to the crew. “It was an extremely tense situation. He was determined not to surrender. And his face was really scared,” Carelli said.

But, despite that tense episode, Carelli finally had images of the Man of the Hole. The Indigenous man’s frightened face footage was sent to Federal Justice, and, a year later, in 1997, a judge interdicted the land to prevent the deforestation of Tanaru’s home, the first step to the area being recognized as an official Indigenous territory.

The search was done. And now it was time to respect Tanaru’s decision and leave him alone.

Carelli’s team was eager to earn Tanaru's trust and capture his image on camera
Carelli’s team was eager to earn Tanaru’s trust and capture his image on camera to help prove there was at least one Indigenous man living in the region after the massacres. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

Cultural forests

Respect for the desire for self-isolation is one of the key policies in Brazil to deal with Indigenous populations in voluntary isolation since the Constitution of 1988. It is the so-called noncontact policy.

Anthropologist Amanda Villa explained that when people hear about isolated Indigenous peoples, there are two reactions. The first consists of discrediting, by saying that it’s impossible to never have any contact with outside society. The second reaction is the understanding that the isolated Indigenous people wouldn’t have the slightest idea of ​​what exists in the world, “that they don’t know anything, that they are trapped in the forest.” For her, “the reality is, so to speak, the middle of the road.”

The point to which Villa draws attention is that there is positivity in the decision for isolation. Refusal of contact is a life option, probably inspired by experiences of violence. “In general, these are peoples who have had episodes of traumatic contact over centuries,” Villa explained. Hence, the understanding that they would be refugees: “They are taking refuge in these places. Reinventing their ways of living. We have to make it very clear that this is a choice,” she said.

And that is precisely what the Tanaru Indigenous land is today: a refuge. Surrounded by soybean plantations on all sides, this is where several species of insects, mammals and birds take refuge. On one side, soybean fields, as far as the eye can see, are drier and hotter. On the other, an exuberant humid forest with a more pleasant temperature and an infinity of shades of green.

A forest that Tanaru, in addition to defending, cultivated.

In recent years, research conducted in archaeology and ecology has supported the hypothesis that the Amazon forest, in its richness and biodiversity, results from an interaction between humans, plants, trees and other animals, which has occurred for at least 8,000 years. That is, the Amazonian Indigenous people, and more recently the riverine and Quilombola populations, play a fundamental role in forming today’s Amazon biodiversity. The forest is actually cultural — an anthropogenic forest.

Carolina Levis, an ecologist at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, is one of the main references in the area. For her, trees carry with them part of human history. Her research centers on understanding how Indigenous peoples shaped the forest. “This process, especially when we talk about the process of forest domestication, ends up leading to a change in the composition, in the shape of the forest,” she told Mongabay. “This forest becomes safer and many times more productive for people.”

The state of Rondônia was the stage of massacres of Indigenous populations during the expansion of the agricultural frontier of the 1980s and 1990s.
The state of Rondônia was the stage of massacres of Indigenous populations during the expansion of the agricultural frontier of the 1980s and 1990s. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

One of the data points that Levis and other researchers in the area bring up is that there is a greater diversity of plants in places where there is a longer-lasting human occupation, a topic she has depicted in many articles, one of them at the prestigious Science Magazine. In other words, the forest is more diverse and has more variety in places where there has been a longer human occupation over the last 8,000 years. “The forest is a reflection of this entire web of interactions. Humans play an important role in transforming these webs of interaction by generating plants and diversity of trees associated with the interests of the culture of each group that is managing the forest,” Levis said.

The Amazon Rainforest may be conceived as an Indigenous technology, according to this theory. A technology marked by Indigenous communities’ appreciation for diversity. “This memory of the relationship with the forest needs to be valued because it can teach us that there are ways to produce the land, to generate wealth — not only material but immaterial wealth — to generate diversity and at the same time be able to live in the forest,” Levis said.

This Indigenous curiosity toward the diversity of plants has made the Amazon a center of plant diffusion, one of the great centers of plant domestication in the world, according to experts. Plants first domesticated in the rainforest are essential for the food base of entire populations not only in Brazil, the researchers say, but also in other societies. She pointed to cassava, which was domesticated there and is the staple food in Africa; and cocoa, fundamental in Central America and Mexico. Brazilian nuts, several palm trees, pepper species and pineapple were also domesticated in the Amazon. “A cradle of plant diversity,” Levis said.

Plant domestication is a long evolutionary process between human communities and plants. These interactions “end up generating changes both in the people who are part of this process and in the plants,” Levis said. The changes in the characteristics of the plants end up selecting, for example, bigger fruits that have more pulp, that are sweeter or that have more oil.

“Plant domestication can be understood as a long-term process, in which people identify plants of interest in nature, with characteristics that are valued by certain specific groups, and end up using these plants and bringing them close to their homes and propagating them. So, with this process of dispersing, propagating and selecting what is most interesting for several generations, it ends up accumulating changes in these plants,” Levis said. The açaí and the Brazilian nuts have subtle changes. But certain domesticated palm fruits, such as the pupunha, for example, weigh 200 times more than its wild ancestor.

For Levis, the land that Tanaru fought for is an example of this Indigenous technology of forest cultivation. “This legacy that Tanaru brings is the entire heritage of Indigenous peoples of living and creating the land in a much more sustainable way than what we have seen from the exploration in the surrounding area.”

Indigenous Nambikwara watching the recordings of Video nas Aldeias project. Today, there are more than 80 Indigenous film collectives in Brazil that spun from the initiative. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

The forest destiny

On Aug. 23, 2022, Algayer found a body in a hammock. He was adorned with feathers, and there were no marks of violence. It was Tanaru. Algayer had the impression that he had prepared himself to die.

As a Funai employee, Algayer spent decades protecting the area in which Tanaru dwelled. Since the restriction of use on his territory was implemented by the Federal Court in 1997, keeping farmers away, Tanaru had chosen to live alone until the end. Algayer helped him, at a distance, fearing that someone interested in the land would send a henchman to murder the Indigenous man, and he would only find the body much later.

But Tanaru had a good death. He refused the violent ending that the process of colonization and expansion of the Brazilian agricultural frontier had tried to impose on him.

However, all his endurance and all his strength in defending life weren’t respected after his death. In a way, the violence that Tanaru repelled in life materialized in his body postmortem: Farmers interested in the area invaded the Indigenous land as soon as they learned of his death.

His body remained unburied for 71 consecutive days, subject to all kinds of exams to determine Tanaru’s cause of death and genetics. The proceedings were carried by Funai, at the time controlled by the administration of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, who has a long record of initiatives against Indigenous people’s rights.

After a lengthy legal dispute over where the body should be buried, his funeral finally happened at Tanaru’s forest home. Not long after, the farmers invaded the place again and violated his tomb.

Now, with Tanaru buried, a new fight begins. What becomes of an Indigenous territory after the last Indigenous individual is gone? Under the Brazilian Constitution, Indigenous lands are created to protect those living on them. But there are no people on top of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory anymore, and local farmers and Indigenous advocates have contrasting plans for it.

Part of the dispute lies in the status of the land. Since it was recognized by Brazilian justice as an Indigenous territory in 1997, Tanaru hasn’t been fully demarcated up to this day. It exists under a “restriction of use” status, considered by specialists a fragile judicial measure to protect an Indigenous land. And although it has been renewed periodically, it expires in 2025.

Farmers invaded the place where Tanaru was buried
Farmers invaded the place where Tanaru was buried, after his funeral, on November 4th, 2022. The footage was captured with Funai’s hidden cameras. Image courtesy of Funai.

The abuse of Tanaru’s body was a clear message that the farmers wanted to expand their properties over the forest he defended. “It was an attempt to hand over this territory to farmers in the region,” Judite Guajajara, a lawyer at the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), told Mongabay. COIAB represents 180 Indigenous peoples from the Amazon region, in addition to groups in voluntary isolation whose official data account for at least 114 official records in the Amazon.

The safest way to protect the territory would be demarcating it, a status that doesn’t need to be renewed and can’t be reversed. Judite Guajajara said that the demarcation of an Indigenous land after the death of its last inhabitant is an unusual situation. Still, she added that the demarcation process should have been carried out during Tanaru’s lifetime, which wasn’t possible due to the delay of the Brazilian state itself. Judite also said she believes that the state’s sluggishness in demarcating Indigenous lands is a mechanism of territorial usurpation.

“Despite the Tanaru Indigenous land being under the protection of a precarious administrative act, our understanding is that it is an Indigenous land, and that the hitherto restriction of use must be overcome by the completion of the due administrative demarcation procedure,” she said.

Kudite added that the Brazilian state should consider the environmental aspect of the area and the perspective of the right to memory and reparation of the massacres perpetrated against the Indigenous peoples of Rondônia. “If the territory is not demarcated, it would legitimize the extermination of the entire people to which Tanaru belonged, and the death of its last survivor. Tanaru’s death doesn’t exclude the state’s duty to recognize this right and preserve that area. It would also be an unacceptable violation of the right to memory since aspects of the culture of those people were perpetuated by Tanaru and still remain within the territory,” she said.

If the farmers now want to put the forest down and advance their soy plantations over Tanaru’s territory, the Indigenous peoples of Rondônia want Tanaru land to remain Indigenous. That it must be considered Tanaru’s legacy to Earth, a living monument in honor of the genocide of the Indigenous groups of Rondônia.

“We asked [the Public Prosecutor Office] for demarcation of the land in his name, to demarcate his territory in memory of him,” José Luís Kassupá, the general coordinator of Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Rondônia and Northwest Mato Grosso (OPIROMA), told Mongabay. “After he died, the farmers took action to stop the use of territorial restrictions. And that is a challenge,” he said.

José Luís agreed with Judite’s argument that the area should be demarcated as a tribute to Tanaru and as reparation for the violence inflicted on the Indigenous peoples of Rondônia, making it a preservation unit or a memorial with a training center.

After Tanaru’s death, Rondônia’s Public Prosecutor Office filed a lawsuit to obtain a judicial ruling for the demarcation of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory. “The office wants the area to have a socio-environmental destination to be protected and preserved,” it said in a statement.

The farmers interested in the Tanaru forest demanded Funai end the restriction imposed on the use of Tanaru’s territory immediately after his death. They also demanded to be part of the Public Prosecutor Office action, which, in turn, argued against the farmers’ entry as a part, since the action was aimed at the demarcation process, and the farmers will have the opportunity to comment at the appropriate time in the administrative process.

There is also an ongoing case in the Supreme Court, proposed by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil (APIB) that requires the Federal Government to protect Indigenous groups in voluntary isolation and recently contacted. APIB also asks for a prompt demarcation of Tanaru territory.

A first ruling by Justice Edson Fachin requires the union to present an action plan “for the regularization and protection of Indigenous lands with the presence of isolated peoples and recent contact”, among which is the Tanaru Indigenous Territory. Fachin decided to maintain the restriction of use of Tanaru’s forest, opposing the ranchers’ interests, while the case is still being settled.

The fate of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory is still undefined. This forest tells a story of resistance. A territory that Tanaru defended and cultivated, destined for the multiplication of various forms of life — certainly when he was alive, and perhaps after his death.


Banner image: The search for the Kanoê brothers produced impressive footage, which, in 1995, ended up on Fantástico, one of the most popular television shows in Brazil, and helped fuel pressure for justice. Reproduction from Corumbiara.

The research on which this article is based was funded by the Brazil LAB (Luso-Afro-Brazilian Studies) from Princeton University.

Fábio Zuker is an anthropologist and multimedia journalist. He is currently conducting his postdoctoral research at Princeton University. He is the author of The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon: Dispatches from the Brazilian Rainforest (Milkweed, 2022).

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


Levis, C., C. Costa, F. R., Bongers, F., Peña-Claros, M., Junqueira, A. B., Neves, E. G., … Ter Steege, H. (2017). Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition. Science. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1126/science.aal0157

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