Rain Forest Rebel

In the Amazon, researchers documenting the ways of native peoples join forces with an embattled chief to stop illegal loggers and developers from destroying the earth’s most precious wilderness

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Almir Surui doesn't expect much official help. Although FUNAI, the Indian affairs agency, is charged with protecting natural resources within the reserves, several former FUNAI officials are said to have ties to the timber and mining industries, and the agency, according to indigenous leaders and even some FUNAI administrators, has been ineffectual in stopping the illegal trade.

Neri Ferigobo, the Rondônia legislator and ally of the Surui, says FUNAI remains vulnerable to pressure from top politicians in the Amazon. "All Rondônia's governors have been development-oriented," he charges. "The people who founded Rondônia had a get-rich-quick mentality, and that has carried down to today."

As for Almir Surui, he is on the road constantly these days, his work funded by the Brazilian government and various international organizations, particularly the Amazon Conservation Team. He commutes by small planes between Brasília, Porto Velho and other Brazilian cities, attending a stream of donor meetings and indigenous affairs conferences. He says he gets barely four days a month at home, not enough to keep in close touch with his community. "I'd like to spend more time here, but I've got too many responsibilities."

I asked Neri Ferigobo, Almir's ally in the Rondônia state legislature, if Almir's increasing activism made his assassination likely. "People know that if Almir is killed, he'll be another Chico Mendes, but that doesn't give him total protection," Ferigobo told me. "Still, I think Almir will survive. I don't think they'd be that rash to kill him."

About 4 p.m. of the third day, the mapmaking seminar draws to a close. The Indians are preparing to celebrate with an evening of dancing, singing and displays of bow-and-arrow prowess. With the encouragement of Almir and other Indian leaders, the tribe has revived its traditional dances and other rituals. Outside the schoolhouse, a dozen elders have adorned themselves in feathered headdresses and belts of armadillo hide; now they daub themselves with black war paint made from the fruit of the jenipapo tree. (The elders insist on decorating me as well, and I reluctantly agree; it will take more than three weeks for the paint to fade.) Marimo Surui, Almir's father, brandishes a handmade bow and a fistful of arrows; each has been fashioned from two harpy-eagle feathers and a slender bamboo shaft that narrows to a deadly point. I ask how he feels about the work his son is doing, and about the threats he has received. He answers in his native Indian language, which is translated first into Portuguese, then English. "It's bad for a father to have a son threatened," he says, "but everyone of us has passed through dangerous times. It is good that he's fighting for the future."

Almir lays a hand on his father's shoulder. He has painted the lower part of his face the color of charcoal, and even dressed in Western clothing—jeans, polo shirt, Nikes—he cuts a fierce figure. I ask him how white Brazilians react to him when he is so adorned. "It makes them nervous," he tells me. "They think it means that the Indians are getting ready for another war." In a way, that war has already begun, and Almir, like his father 25 years before him, stands virtually unprotected against his enemies.

Freelancer Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin. Photographer Claudio Edinger works out of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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