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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

The Brazilian government has been largely supportive of the Amazon mapmaking projects. In 2001 and 2002, the Amazon Conservation Team collaborated on two ambitious ethnomapping schemes with FUNAI and remote indigenous tribes in the Xingu and Tumucumaque reserves. In 2003, the Brazilian ambassador to the United States, Roberto Abdenur, presented the new maps at a press conference in Washington. According to van Roosmalen, ACT maintains "good relationships" with nearly all agencies of the Brazilian government that deal with Indian affairs.

But the future of the reserves is in doubt. Land disputes between Indians and developers are growing, as increasing assassinations of tribal leaders attest. A 2005 report by Amnesty International declared that the "very existence of Indians in Brazil" is being threatened. Pro-development politicans, including Ivo Cassol, the governor of Rondônia, who was returned to office with 60 percent of the vote this past September, call for the exploiting of resources on Indian reserves. Cassol's spokesman, Sergio Pires, told me matter-of-factly that "the history of colonization has been the history of exterminating Indians. Right now you have small groups left, and eventually they will all disappear."

Throughout Brazil, however, advocates of rain forest preservation are countering pro-development forces. President Lula da Silva recently announced a government plan to create a coherent rain forest policy, auctioning off timber rights in a legally sanctioned area. JorgeViana, former governor of the state of Acre, told the New York Times, "This is one of the most important initiatives that Brazil has ever adopted in the Amazon, precisely because you are bringing the forest under state control, not privatizing it." Another state governor, Eduardo Braga of Amazonas, created the Zona Franca Verde (Green Free Trade Zone), which lowered taxes on sustainable rain forest products, from nuts to medicinal plants, in order to increase their profitability. Braga has set aside 24 million acres of rain forest since 2003.

The stakes are high. If indigenous peoples disappear, environmentalists say, the Amazon rain forest will likely vanish as well. Experts say as much as 20 percent of the forest, sprawling over 1.6 million square miles and covering more than half of Brazil, has already been destroyed. According to Brazil's Environmental Ministry, deforestation in the Amazon in 2004 reached its second-highest rate ever, with ranchers, soybean farmers and loggers burning and cutting down 10,088 square miles of rain forest, an area roughly the size of Vermont. "The fate of indigenous cultures and that of the rain forest are intricately intertwined," says Mark Plotkin, founding director of ACT, which is providing financial and logistical support to the Surui's mapping project and several others in the rain forest. So far the organization has ethnomapped 40 million acres in Brazil, Suriname and Columbia. By 2012, it hopes to have put together maps covering 138 million acres of Indian reserves, much of it contiguous. "Without the rain forest, these traditional cultures cannot survive," Plotkin says. "At the same time, indigenous peoples have repeatedly been shown to be the most effective guardians of the rain forests they inhabit."

After two days driving into the Amazon with Almir, we turned off from the Rondônia Highway and bounced down a dirt road for half an hour. Farmers with blond hair and Germanic features stared impassively from the roadside—part of a wave of migrants who came up to the Amazon from the more densely populated southern Brazilian states in the 1970s and '80s. Just before a sign that marks the entrance to the Sete de Setembro Reserve, Almir pulled up next to a small lumber mill. It was one of dozens, he said, that have sprung up on the edge of the reserve to process mahogany and other valuable hardwoods plundered from the forest, often with the complicity of tribal chiefs. Two flatbed trucks, piled with 40-foot logs, were parked in front of a low, wood-plank building. The sawmill operator, accompanied by his adolescent son, sat on a bench and stared, unsmiling, at Almir. "I've complained about them many times, but they're still here," Almir told me.

Moments later, we found ourselves in the jungle. The screams of spider and howler monkeys and the squawks of red macaws echoed from dense stands of bamboo, wild papaya, mahogany, bananas and a dozen varieties of palm. It had rained the night before, and the truck churned in a sea of red mud, grinding with difficulty up a steep hill.

We arrived at a small Surui village, where a mapmaking seminar was taking place. Tribal elders had been invited here to share their knowledge with researchers on the project. They congregated on benches around rough tables beneath a palm-frond canopy, alongside a creek that, I was told, was infested with piranhas. The elders were striking men in their 50s and 60s, a few even older, with bronze skin, black hair cut in bangs and faces adorned with tribal tattoos—thin blue lines that ran horizontally and vertically along their cheekbones. The oldest introduced himself as Almir's father, Marimo Surui. A former tribal chief, Marimo, 85, is a legend among the Indians; in the early 1980s, he single-handedly seized a logging truck and forced the driver to flee. Dozens of policemen surrounded the truck in response, and Marimo confronted them alone, armed only with a bow and arrow. "They had machine guns and revolvers, but when they saw me with my bow and arrow, they shouted, 'Amigo! Amigo! Don't shoot,' and tried to hide behind a wall," he told me. "I followed them and said, 'You cannot take this truck.'" The police, apparently bewildered by the sight of an angry Indian in war paint with a bow and arrow, retreated without firing a shot.

The incident will undoubtedly be included in the Surui map. In the first phase of the process, Indians trained as cartographic researchers traveled to villages across the reserve and interviewed shamans (the Surui have only three left, all in their 80s), tribal elders and a broad spectrum of tribe members. They identified significant locations to be mapped—ancestral cemeteries, ancient hunting grounds, battle sites and other areas of cultural, natural and historical importance. In phase two, the researchers journeyed on foot or by canoe through the reserve with GPS systems to verify the places described. (In previous mapmaking exercises, the elders' memories of locations have proved nearly infallible.) The initial phase has brought younger Indians in touch with a lost history. Almir hopes that by infusing the Surui with pride in their world, he can unite them in resistance to those who want to eradicate it.

Almir Surui is one of the youngest Surui members with a clear memory of the early Indian-white battles. In 1982, when he was 7, the Surui rose up to drive settlers out of the forest. "The Surui came to this settlement with bows and arrows, grabbed the white invaders, hit them with bamboo sticks, stripped them and sent them out in their underwear," Almir tells me, as we sit on plastic chairs on the porch of his blue-painted concrete-block house in Lapetania on the southwest edge of the reserve. The hamlet is named after a white settler who built a homestead here in the 1970s. The cleared land was taken back by the Indians in the wake of the revolt; they built their own village on top of it. Shortly thereafter, the police foiled a planned massacre of the Surui by whites; FUNAI stepped in and marked out the borders of the Sete de Setembro Reserve.

The demarcation of their territory, however, could not keep out the modern world. And though the Surui were forced to integrate into white society, they derived few benefits from it. A shortage of schools, poor medical care, alcoholism and steady depletion of the forest thinned their ranks and deepened their poverty. This problem only increased in the late 1980s, when the Surui divided into four clans and dispersed to different corners of the reserve, a strategic move intended to help them better monitor illicit logging. Instead, it turned them into factions.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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