CARU INDIGENOUS LAND, BRAZIL — Wirohoa does not have a driver’s license, a television or a cellphone. He does not know how old he is and walks barefoot around the indigenous village of Tiracambu, in the Brazilian Amazon.
Last December he and his mother, Jakarewãja, along with his aunt Amakaria, left the forest where they had lived their entire lives as nomadic hunter-gatherers, isolated from modern society.
“We were very happy living in the forest,” said Wirohoa, who does not use a surname and is around 25 years old.
The move to a village brought decidedly mixed results. The two women caught tuberculosis; like other hunter-gatherers, their immune systems are especially susceptible to modern diseases. Wirohoa found a wife.
The trio’s story illustrates the decreasing number of options available to their tribe, the Awá, caught between the difficulties of surviving in the diminishing forest and the dangers posed by illness and development in the world outside.
The Awá have been called the most endangered tribe on Earth because of the threat posed by illegal loggers to their forested hunting grounds. Most of their population of about 450 people live in Caru, a 668-square-mile reserve created in 1982, and an adjacent reserve called Awa. Journalists with The Washington Post were given rare permission by the tribe to visit the reserves.
Until recently, Wirohoa, Amakaria, believed to be in her early 50s, and Jakarewãja, in her late 30s, did not know they were living on an indigenous reserve. For them, the world was the forest.
For the Awá, hunting is largely the responsibility of the men. But for years, Amakaria took on the role, teaching Wirohoa as he grew up.
“She hunted anteater and peccary with arrows,” Wirohoa said. “Jakarewãja was the cook. She dried the meat while Amakaria slept in the hammock after hunting.”
But the forest was no longer safe for the family. Wirohoa could hear the terrifying sound of chain saws as loggers edged closer to their hut made of wood and palm fronds. Trees around them were marked for felling. When a hunting party from one of the villages on the reserve came across the trio, they were persuaded that it was safer to come out of the wild.
Within days of reaching Awa village, the two women had fallen sick with colds. In April they were diagnosed with tuberculosis, and all three were airlifted to Sao Luis, the capital of Maranhao state. The two women have been convalescing in a replica of their forest hut, built on the grounds of a hospital.
Wirohoa, whose name means “Big Bird” or “Hawk,” has had a far happier experience. He is enjoying the first romantic relationship of his life with Ximirapia, an older woman who the tribe decided should be his wife. A partner was difficult to find in the forest, where he lived with just his aunt and mother. His father had died before he was born.
“I didn’t have a wife before. Now I do. I am really happy!” said Wirohoa, as he and Ximirapia kissed and cuddled. “I like it so much that when she goes somewhere, I cry.”
Wirohoa smiles a lot. Awá villagers in Tiracambu said he has settled into life there. He has developed a small potbelly and still goes on hunting trips, often for days at a time. But the modern world presents threats.
The tribe’s hunting — its key source of sustenance, though members also do some farming — is threatened by plans to expand a railroad line that runs just outside the reserves.
Enormous freight trains carrying iron ore roar down the track 12 times a day. With a second track, and an increase in the number of trains, game animals will appear even less frequently, Awá leaders say.
Wirohoa could hear the trains in the distance when he lived in the forest. The first time he saw one, Ximirapia said, he was terrified, and she hugged him tight.
The Awá were first mentioned by outsiders in an 1853 report by a provincial official. The tribe had sporadic interactions with local farmers over the next century, but Brazil’s indigenous agency made formal contact only in 1973.
Over the following years, most tribal members were resettled in Amazon villages. Scores died, their immune systems unable to cope with common diseases. Brazil subsequently established a policy of not seeking to communicate with the remaining hunter-gatherers. The country now has around 80 “non-contacted” tribal groups, according to Survival International, a British group that defends indigenous people’s rights.
Today Wirohoa and Ximirapia share a hammock in one of the handful of mud-brick and tin-roofed houses in their village. They share the dwelling with a tortoise, birds, forest rodents and two species of monkey, as well as Ximirapia’s other husband, Kamajrua, and half a dozen other people. Polygamy and polyandry are part of Awá culture.
“We were the ones who brought him,” said Kamajrua, one of the group that accompanied Wirohoa and the two women in from the forest. “Now he hunts boar with us.”
Wirohoa had actually been to Awa village, a few miles from Tiracambu, when he was a small child, around 20 years ago. At that time, his mother and aunt were led there by a resident named Wirixia. He gave them an axe and a tiny piece of knife blade, which they kept.
“We soon went back to the forest. We were scared of getting flu and dying,” Wirohoa said.
It is very rare for “isolated” indigenous people like these to come out of the forest — for the Awá, the last case was in 2004, when a woman and her teenage son emerged. But as logging reduces the size of the forest, such incidents are happening more often.
The Indigenous Missionary Council, a group linked to Brazil’s Catholic bishops, said the country’s indigenous agency took too long to diagnose Jakarewãja and Amakaria with tuberculosis. “The way the contact was done was negligent,” said Rosana Diniz, 40, from the council, a rare outsider who speaks the Awá language.
The agency contested this characterization. Neide Siqueira, its policy coordinator for recently contacted Indians, said she and another high-level employee spent weeks in Tiracambu after the trio first arrived. An indigenous health specialist was brought in to treat the women’s tuberculosis.
Wirohoa has swapped the skirt woven out of straw he used to wear for shorts and a T-shirt. He is no longer scared of the iron-ore train. But Diniz, who has met him, said his smiles mask uneasiness.
“He is completely disorientated,” she said. “He has no choice. Either he stays in this strange world, or he goes back to danger.”