Jair Candor Tracks Brazil’s Amazon Tribes From the Shadows

Jair Candor had been searching the Amazon rainforest for three days when he heard their voices. He had spent a decade documenting their tracks, but that day back in 2011 was his first time seeing them: a family of nine, trekking through the forest nude with children on their backs and arrows taller than him.

For years, logging companies had said this isolated Indigenous group was a myth. But now Mr. Candor, hidden behind slim trees, was recording the first-ever video of them.

When he was done, he cursed the loggers and dared 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 accomplished tracer of isolated tribes in Brazil, one of a waning number hired by the Brazilian government to explore some of the most untouched patches of the Amazon to find evidence of groups that have lived largely unseen and uncontacted for generations.

The job is not to contact the tribes but to protect them. The law requires proof that isolated groups exist before their land can be placed off limits to outsiders. Mr. Candor tries to spot the tribes without being spotted, to allow them to remain isolated and to protect himself.

“My curiosity is great,” Mr. Candor said. “But the respect for their rights is greater.”

Over 35 years, he has led hundreds of expeditions into the forest, catching malaria dozens of times, by his own estimate, and surviving two attempts on his life, 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 discovered evidence of four tiny civilizations, each of which researchers believe has its own language, culture and stories. They include Brazil’s smallest known tribe, the Piripkura, and its three remaining survivors. His work has led to legal protections that cover nearly 7,000 square miles, an area of rainforest bigger than Puerto Rico, making him one of the single most effective figures working on Amazon preservation today.

Such protections are critical for the rainforest as it fast approaches a tipping point that could transform large areas into grasslands and turn a place that stores huge amounts of heat-trapping gases into a net emitter.

The work has also earned him plenty of enemies. One morning in June, as he sped along a rutted dirt road into the forest at 50 miles an hour, he talked about politicians who have pressured his bosses to fire him, farmers who have tried to bribe him and loggers who have tried to hire assassins to kill him. Now he keeps a shiny 9-millimeter pistol in his bulletproof vest.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “What worries me are snakes,” he added with a smile.

The video he filmed in 2011 was of the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo, one of the 115 groups thought to live in isolation in Brazil, the most of any country. A lack of proof means that roughly a third of those groups remain unprotected, making expert trackers like Mr. Candor, who have learned how to find forest dwellers who don’t want to be found, critical to their survival.

Mr. Candor’s family moved to the Amazon when he was 6. It was the 1960s, and his parents had decided to answer a call by the country’s military dictatorship to colonize the rainforest. They would help to subdue “the green hell,” as the government called it, and earn a plot of land for their trouble.

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

By 1988, the military government had fallen and Brazil was working to approve a new constitution that recognized the rights of Indigenous people over their land. To protect them, the government needed new experts in the rainforest. Mr. Candor, 28 at the time, had earned a reputation for working hard and making friends with Indigenous people in the forest. The government hired him.

Mr. Candor quickly showed a knack for the job. He learned from Indigenous people how to spot signs of those who chose to live apart. There were the broken Brazil nut shells, or bunches of toxic plants left by streams, used to stun fish in order to catch them.

Cut-off branches can tell a lot, too. The direction of the cut can indicate which way someone was walking, and the height how tall they were. A closer inspection may reveal how sharp the machete was. Tribes living in isolation can’t sharpen the machetes they steal from nearby communities.

Then, there are the signs Mr. Candor can’t explain. Something tells him to stop, and then he finds it — a shelter, a ceramic pot, the leftovers of a meal. Maybe he can hear what birds are saying, like some Indigenous people claim they do, or he has an Indigenous man’s spirit inside him, as a priestess once told him.

“It’s a spiritual thing,” his deputy, Rodrigo Ayres, said. “Inside the forest, there’s a mode of communication that we can’t explain according to our worldview. And Jair can tap into that.”

In the first expedition he led on his own, in 1989, Mr. Candor found two members of the Piripkura, whom the government had been seeking for four years. Another tribe had given them the name, which means butterfly, because of how fast they flitted through the forest. 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 bunch of crap,” he said. “Then you meet these two guys, living happily with nothing, no clothes, no supermarket, no water or electricity bill.”

Mr. Candor soon started detaching, too. In 1992, an expedition ran longer than expected and he missed his own wedding day. The bride didn’t want him back. He later married a different woman and had two sons. But he still comes home only about eight times a year.

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

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

He told everyone to stand 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 shots, they said, so they fired back. One of the invaders was killed. The others ran away. The investigation that followed didn’t find evidence that the men connected to the loggers were carrying guns, but their leader was arrested.

Two years later, in 2020, one of Mr. Candor’s colleagues was killed by an arrow shot by the member of a tribe he had been watching over for decades. And last year, Bruno Pereira, a specialist on isolated tribes from a younger generation of experts, was killed along with a British journalist, Dom Phillips, for his work helping to protect land that had been preserved for isolated tribes.

Mr. Candor was close with both of the Indigenous experts who died, and he knows they could have been him. He says he thinks he only has another four or five years before retirement. But until then, he said, he will keep risking his life to help Indigenous tribes.

“We are the only people fighting for this,” he said. “Their voice out here is us.”