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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Inside a thatched-roof schoolhouse in Nabekodabadaquiba, a village deep in Brazil's Amazon rain forest, Surui Indians and former military cartographers huddle over the newest weapons in the tribe's fight for survival: laptop computers, satellite maps and hand-held global positioning systems. At one table, Surui illustrators place a sheet of tracing paper over a satellite image of the Sete de Setembro indigenous reserve, the enclave where this workshop is taking place. Painstakingly, the team maps out the sites of bow-and-arrow skirmishes with their tribal enemies, as well as a bloody 1960s attack on Brazilian telegraph workers who were laying cable through their territory. "We Suruis are a warrior tribe," one of the researchers says proudly.

A few feet away, anthropologists sketch out groves of useful trees and plants on another map. A third team charts the breeding areas of the territory's wildlife, from toucans to capybaras, the world's largest rodent. When the task is finished, in about a month, the images will be digitized and overlaid to create a map documenting the reserve in all its historical, cultural and natural richness. "I was born in the middle of the forest, and I know every corner of it," says Ibjaraga Ipobem Surui, 58, one of the tribal elders whose memories have been tapped. "It's very beautiful work."

The project, intended to document an indigenous culture, appears harmless enough. But this is a violent region, where even innocuous attempts to organize the Indians can provoke brutal responses from vested interests. In the past five years, 11 area tribal chiefs, including 2 members of the Surui tribe and 9 from the neighboring Cinta Largas, have been gunned down—on the orders, say tribe members, of loggers and miners who have plundered Indian reserves and who regard any attempt to unite as a threat to their livelihoods. Some of these murdered chiefs had orchestrated protests and acts of resistance, blocking logging roads and chasing gold miners from pits and riverbeds—actions that disrupted operations and caused millions of dollars in lost revenue. In August, the Surui chief who, along with tribal elders, brought the map project to the reserve, 32-year-old Almir Surui, received an anonymous telephone call warning him, he says, to back off. "You are potentially hurting many people," he says he was told. "You'd better be careful." Days later, two Surui youths alleged at a tribal meeting that they had been offered $100,000 by a group of loggers to kill Almir Surui.

For the past 15 years, Almir—a political activist, environmentalist and the first member of his tribe to attend a university—has been fighting to save his people and the rain forest they inhabit in the western state of Rondônia. His campaign, which has gained the support of powerful allies in Brazil and abroad, has inspired comparisons to the crusade of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper who led a highly publicized movement against loggers and cattle ranchers in neighboring Acre state in the 1980s. "If it weren't for people like Almir, the Surui would have been destroyed by now," says Neri Ferigobo, a Rondônia state legislator and an important political ally. "He's brought his people back from near extinction; he's made them understand the value of their culture and their land."

Almir's campaign has reached its fullest expression in the mapmaking project. Besides documenting the tribe's history and traditions and detailing its landscape, in an endeavor known as ethnomapping, his scheme could have significant economic effect. As part of the deal for bringing ethnomapping to his people—an ambitious project that will provide training, jobs and other benefits to the near-destitute Surui—Almir persuaded 14 of the 18 Surui chiefs to declare a moratorium on logging in their parts of the reserve. Although the removal of timber from the indigenous areas is illegal, an estimated 250 logging trucks go in and out of the reserve monthly, according to tribal leaders, providing timber to 200 sawmills, employing some 4,000 people, scattered throughout the region. After Almir persuaded the chiefs to unite in a logging ban, many of them threw chains over logging roads, and the amount of timber leaving the rain forest has decreased. That's when the first death threat came in. In mid-August, Almir flew for his own protection to Brasília, where federal police promised to launch an investigation and provide him with bodyguards; neither, he says, was forthcoming. Days later, an American environmental group, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), evacuated him to Washington, D.C., where he remained until late September. After returning home, he says, someone tried to run him off the road as he traveled back to the reserve. "I have no doubt they were trying to kill me," he says.
When I asked him if he saw parallels between himself and Chico Mendes, who was shot dead by a contract killer at his home in December 1988, he waved his hand dismissively. "I've got no desire to become a dead hero," he replied. Asked what precautions he was taking, however, he shrugged and, with a touch of bravado, answered: "I rely on the spirits of the forest to protect me."

I first met Almir on a humid morning in mid-October, after flying three hours north from Brasília to Porto Velho (pop. 305,000), Rondônia's steamy capital and the gateway to the Amazon. The chief had been back in Brazil only a couple of weeks following his hasty evacuation to Washington. He had invited me to travel with him to the Sete de Setembro Reserve, the 600,000-acre enclave set aside for the Surui by the Brazilian government in 1983. The reserve is named after the day, September 7, 1968, that the Surui had their first face-to-face contact with white men: the meeting took place after Brazilian officials from the Indian affairs department had placed trinkets—machetes, pocketknives, axes—in forest clearings as a gesture of friendship, gradually winning the Indians' trust. (By coincidence, the 7th of September is also the date, in 1822, that Brazil declared its independence from Portugal.)

Almir was waiting at the arrival gate. He is a short, stocky man with a bulldog head, a broad nose and jet-black hair cut in traditional bangs in front and worn long in back. He greeted me in Portuguese (he speaks no English) and led the way to his Chevrolet pickup truck parked out front. Almir was joined by Vasco van Roosmalen, Brazil program director for the Amazon Conservation Team, which is funding the ethnomapping project. A tall, amiable, 31-year-old Dutchman, van Roosmalen grew up in the Brazilian Amazon, where his father, a noted primatologist, discovered several new species of monkey. Also on the trip was Uruguayan Marcelo Segalerba, the team's environmental coordinator. After a lunch of dorado stew, manioc and rice at a local café, we set out on the Rondônia Highway, the BR-364, on the 210-mile drive southeast to the reserve, past cattle ranches, farms and hardscrabble towns that looked as if they'd been thrown up overnight. As we approached the ramshackle roadside settlement of Ariquemes, Almir told us, "This land belonged to the Ariquemes tribe, but they were wiped out by the white men. Now the only trace of them is the name of this town."

Less than two generations ago, the Surui were among several large groups of Indians who roamed an area of primary rain forest along the borders of what are now Rondônia and Mato Grosso states. They wore loincloths, lived off the animals they hunted with bows and arrows and trapped in the forest, and battled for territory with other tribes in the area. (Known in their own language as the Paiterey, or "Real People," the Surui acquired their now more commonly used name in the 1960s. That was when Brazilian government officials asked the rival Zora tribe to identify a more elusive group the officials had also seen in the forest. The Zora answered with a word that sounded like "surui," meaning "enemy.") Then, in the early 1980s, Brazil embarked on the most ambitious public-works project in the country's history: a two-lane asphalt road that today runs east-west for at least 2,o00 miles from the state of Acre, through Rondônia and into the neighboring state of Mato Grosso. Financed by the World Bank and the Brazilian government, the multi-billion-dollar project attracted hundreds of thousands of poor farmers and laborers from Brazil's densely populated south in search of cheap, fertile land. A century and a half after the American West was settled by families in wagon trains, Brazil's conquest of its wilderness unfolded as newcomers penetrated deeper into the Amazon, burning and clear-cutting the forest. They also clashed frequently, and often violently, with indigenous tribes armed only with bows and arrows.

What followed was a pattern familiar to students of the American West: a painful tale of alcoholism, destruction of the environment and the disappearance of a unique culture. Catholic and evangelical missionaries stripped the Indians of their myths and their traditions; exposure to disease, especially respiratory infections, killed off thousands. Some tribes simply vanished. The Surui population dropped from about 2,000 before "contact" to a few hundred by the late 1980s. The psychological devastation was nearly as severe. "When you have this white expansion, the Indians start seeing themselves as the white man sees them—as savages, as obstacles to development," explains Samuel Vieira Cruz, an anthropologist and a founder of Kanindé, an Indian rights group based in Porto Velho. "The structure of their universe gets obliterated."

In 1988, faced with a population on the verge of dying out, Brazil ratified a new constitution that recognized the Indians' right to reclaim their original lands and preserve their way of life. Over the next decade, government land surveyors demarcated 580 Indian reserves, 65 percent of them in the Amazon. Today, according to FUNAI, the federal department established in 1969 to oversee Indian affairs, Indian tribes control 12.5 percent of the national territory, though they number just 450,000, or .25 percent of Brazil's total population. These reserves have become islands of natural splendor and biodiversity in a ravaged landscape: recent satellite imagery of the Amazon shows a few islands of green, marking the Indian enclaves, surrounded by vast splotches of orange, where agriculture, ranching and logging have eradicated the woodlands.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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