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He tracks elusive Amazon tribes, but only from the shadows

Jair Candor had been searching the Amazon rainforest for three days when he heard their voices. He’d spent a decade documenting their tracks, but on that day in 2011 he saw them for the first time: a family of nine trekking naked through the woods, with children on their backs and arrows larger as he.

For years, logging companies had claimed this isolated tribal group was a myth. But now Mr. Candor, hidden behind slender trees, was recording it very first video from them.

When he was done, he cursed the loggers and challenged them to say the tribe didn’t exist, his colleague Claiton Gabriel Silva said. Mr. Candor’s eyes were wet with tears.

Mr. Candor, 63, is perhaps the most experienced tracker of isolated tribes in Brazil. He is one of the dwindling number hired by the Brazilian government to explore some of the most pristine areas of the Amazon in search of evidence of groups that have lived largely unseen and uncontacted for generations.

The task is not to contact the tribes, but to protect them. The law requires proof that isolated groups exist before their country can be closed to outsiders. Mr. Candor tries to spot the tribes without being spotted to allow them to stay isolated and protect themselves.

“I’m very curious,” said Mr. Candor. “But respect for their rights is greater.”

Over the course of 35 years, he has led hundreds of expeditions into the forest, contracted malaria by his own estimate dozens of times, and survived two assassination attempts in his lifetime, one in which an Indigenous man fired arrows at his team and another when a group of loggers attacked the base where he worked.

Mr. Candor has uncovered evidence of four tiny civilizations that researchers believe each have their own language, culture and history. These include Brazil’s smallest known tribe, the Piripkura, and its three remaining survivors. His work has resulted in legal protections covering nearly 7,000 square miles, an expanse of rainforest larger than Puerto Rico, making him one of the most effective figures working to protect the Amazon today.

Such conservation efforts are critical for the rainforest as it is fast approaching a tipping point that could convert large areas to grasslands and turn a site storing large amounts of heat-trapping gases into a net emitter.

The work has also earned him many enemies. One June morning, as he hurtled down a rutted dirt road into the woods at 50 miles an hour, he talked about politicians pressuring his bosses to fire him, farmers trying to bribe him, and about loggers trying to hire assassins to kill him. Now he’s carrying a shiny 9mm pistol in his bulletproof vest.

“I’m not afraid,” he said. “What worries me is snakes,” he added, smiling.

The video he shot in 2011 showed the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo, one of the 115 groups believed to live in isolation in Brazil, the largest group of any country. That means a lack of evidence about a third With some of these groups remaining vulnerable, experienced trackers like Mr. Candor, who have learned to find woodland creatures who don’t want to be found, are vital to their survival.

When he was six years old, Mr. Candor’s family moved to the Amazon. It was the 1960s, and his parents had decided to heed a call from the country’s military dictatorship to colonize the rainforest. They would help conquer the “green hell”. the government called itand earn a piece of land for their labor.

Three years later, Mr. Candor’s mother died. His family dispersed and eventually a group of rubber tappers adopted him. Soon he stopped going to school and began learning how to survive in the wilderness.

By 1988 the military government had been overthrown and Brazil was working on passing a new constitution recognizing the rights of the indigenous people to their lands. To protect them, the government needed new experts in the rainforest. Mr. Candor, then 28 years old, had earned a reputation for working hard and forging friendships with the indigenous people of the forest. The government hired him.

Mr. Candor quickly showed a knack for the job. He learned from indigenous peoples how to recognize signs that they have chosen to live apart. There were broken Brazil nut shells or clumps of poisonous plants left behind by streams and used to stun fish in order to catch them.

Cut branches can also reveal a lot. The direction of the cut can tell which direction someone was walking, and the height how tall they were. A closer look might reveal how sharp the machete was. Isolated tribes cannot sharpen the machetes they steal from surrounding communities.

Then there are the signs that Mr. Candor cannot explain. Something tells him to stop, and then he finds it – a shelter, a ceramic pot, the remains of a meal. He may be able to hear what birds are saying, as some indigenous people say, or he may have the spirit of an indigenous man, as a priestess once told him.

“It’s a spiritual thing,” said his deputy Rodrigo Ayres. “There is a kind of communication in the forest that we cannot explain with our world view. And Jair can access it.”

In the first expedition he led alone, in 1989, Mr. Candor found two members of the Piripkura whom the government had been looking for for four years. Another tribe had given them the name, meaning “butterfly,” because they flitted through the forest so quickly. He noticed how little they needed to survive: fire, a couple of hammocks, a blunt machete.

“We need a home, we need a car, we need a lot of crap,” he said. “Then you meet these two guys who live happily with no clothes, no supermarket, no water or electricity bills.”

Mr. Candor, too, soon began to distance himself. In 1992, an expedition took longer than expected and he missed his own wedding anniversary. The bride didn’t want him back. He later married another woman and had two sons. But he still only comes home about eight times a year.

Mr. Candor also lost his sense of security. In 2018, an informant warned him that a group of men associated with loggers were on their way to attack him.

He was at a government base in the woods. It was too remote for the authorities to help. But instead of fleeing, he decided that he and his team would protect the base even when his adult son was visiting. He gave guns to his son and six colleagues. His son got the only bulletproof vest.

He ordered everyone to line up in an arrowhead formation so they wouldn’t hit each other and shoot down a slope. “I saw it in a movie,” he said.

The nine men broke the lock on the gate around 9 p.m. Mr. Candor and his crew heard gunshots, they said, so they fired back. One of the intruders was killed. The others ran away. Subsequent investigation found no evidence that the men associated with the loggers were carrying weapons, but their leader was arrested.

Two years later, in 2020, one of Mr. Candor’s colleagues was killed by an arrow shot by a member of a tribe he had watched over for decades. And last year Bruno Pereira, an isolated tribes specialist from a younger generation of experts, was killed along with a British journalist, Dom Phillips, for his work protecting lands remaining to isolated tribes.

Mr. Candor was close to the two dead Indigenous experts and knows he may have been. He says he believes he only has four to five years until retirement. But until then, he said, he will continue to risk his life to help indigenous tribes.

“We’re the only ones fighting for it,” he said. “Your voice out here, we are.”

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