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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At age 14, while attending secondary school in Cacoal, Almir Surui began showing up at tribal meetings at the reserve. Three years later, in 1992, at 17, he was elected chief of the Gamep, one of the four Surui clans, and began looking for ways to bring economic benefits to his people while preserving their land. He came to the attention of an indigenous leader in Brazil's Minas Gerais state, Ailton Krenak, who helped him obtain a scholarship to the University of Goiânia, near Brasília. "Education can be a double-edged sword for the Indians, because it brings them into contact with white men's values," says Samuel Vieira Cruz. "Almir was an exception. He spent three years in college, but he kept his ties to his people."

Almir got his first big opportunity to demonstrate his political skills a couple of years later. In the mid-1990s, the World Bank launched a $700 million agricultural project, Plana Fora, designed to bring corn-threshing equipment, seeds, fertilizers and other aid to the reserves. Almir and other tribal leaders soon realized, however, that the Indians were receiving almost none of the promised money and material. In 1996, he confronted the World Bank representative and demanded that the lender bypass FUNAI, the intermediary, and give the money directly to the tribes. In Porto Velho, Almir organized a protest that drew 4,000 Indians from many different tribes. Then, in 1998, the young chief was invited to attend a meeting of the World Bank board of directors in Washington, D.C. where a restructuring of the project would be discussed.

Twenty-three years old, speaking no English, Almir and another Brazilian rain forest activist, Jose Maria dos Santos, who had joined him on the trip, checked into a Washington hotel and ventured out to find something to eat. They walked into the first restaurant they happened upon and pointed at random to items on the menu. The waitress laid a plate of sushi in front of Almir and a chocolate cake before his colleague. "We skimmed the chocolate fudge off the cake and didn't eat anything else," he says. For the next week, he says, the two ate all their meals at a chicken rotisserie near their hotel. He convinced the World Bank to audit its loan to Rondônia.

Back home, Almir began reaching out to the press, religious leaders and sympathetic politicians to publicize and support his cause. Powerful government figures came to see him as a threat. "The governor pleaded with me to stop the [World Bank] campaign, and he offered me 1 percent of the $700 million project to do so. I refused," Almir tells me. "Later, in Porto Velho, [the governor's staffers] put a pile of cash in front of me, and I said, 'Give me the telephone and I'll call O Globo [one of Brazil's largest newspapers] to photograph the scene.' They said, 'If you tell anybody about this you will disappear.'" In the end, the World Bank plan was restructured, and the Indians did get paid directly.

Other accomplishments followed. Almir successfully sued the state of Rondônia to force officials to build schools, wells and medical clinics within the reserve. He also focused on bringing the Surui back from near extinction, advising families to have more children and encouraging people from other tribes to settle on Surui land; the population has risen from several hundred in the late 1980s to about 1,100 today, half of what it was before contact. "Without Almir, his work and leaders like him, the Surui would probably have joined tribes like the Ariquemes and disappeared into the vacuum of Rondônia history," van Roosmalen told me. "One has to remember what stakes these people are facing. It is not one of poverty versus riches, but survival in the face of annihilation."

Soon after we arrive in the Surui villages to observe the mapmaking project, Almir leads me through a hodgepodge of thatched and tin-roofed structures surrounding an unkempt square of grass and asphalt. A dozen women, surrounded by naked children, sit on the concrete patio of a large house making necklaces out of armadillo spines and palm seed shells. A broken Honda motorbike rusts in the grass; a capuchin monkey sits tethered by a rope. A bristly wild pig, somebody's pet, lies panting in the noonday heat. The village has a shabby, somnolent air. Despite Almir's efforts, economic opportunities remain minimal—handicraft selling and cultivation of manioc, bananas, rice and beans. A few Surui are teachers at the reserve's primary school; some of the elders collect government pensions. "It's a poor place," Almir says. "The temptation to surrender to the loggers are great."

With the encouragement of Almir and a handful of like-minded chiefs, the Surui have begun exploring economic alternatives to logging. Almir leads van Roosmalen and me on a trail that wanders past his village; we are quickly swallowed up by the rain forest. Almir points out mahogany saplings that he has planted to replace trees cut down illegally. The Surui have also revived a field of shade-grown coffee started decades ago by white settlers. His "50-year plan" for Surui development, which he and other village chiefs drafted in 1999, calls also for extraction of therapeutic oils from the copaiba tree, the cultivation of Brazil nuts and acai fruits and the manufacture of handicrafts and furniture. There is even talk about a "certified logging" program that would allow some trees to be cut and sold under strict controls. Profits would be distributed among tribe members, and for every tree cut, a sapling would be planted.

After half an hour, we arrive at an Indian roundhouse, or lab-moy, a 20-foot-high, dome-like structure built of thatch, supported by bamboo poles. Almir and two dozen other Surui built the structure in 15 days last summer. They intend to use it as an indigenous research and training center. "The struggle is to guarantee [the Surui] alternative incomes: the process has now begun," Almir says.

He has no illusions about the difficulty of his task, realizing that the economic alternatives he has introduced take time and that the easy money proffered by loggers is hard to resist. "The chiefs know it's wrong, but they're attracted to the cash," van Roosmalen says. "The leaders get up to $1,000 a month. It's the most divisive issue that the Surui have to deal with." Henrique Yabadai Surui, a clan chief and one of Almir's allies in the fight, had told me that the unity of 14 chiefs opposed to logging has begun to fray. "We've started receiving threats, and there's no security. Messages have been sent: 'Stop getting in the way.' It is very difficult. We all have children that we need to take care of."

We stop unannounced at an Indian village at the eastern edge of the reserve. A logging truck, with five huge hardwoods stacked in back, is parked on the road. We walk past barking dogs, chickens and the charred remains of a roundhouse that burned down the week before in a fire that was started, we are told, by a 6-year-old boy who had been playing with matches. Joaquim Surui, the village chief, is taking a nap in a hammock in front of his house. Wearing a T-shirt bearing the English words LIVE LIFE INTENSELY, he jumps to his feet. When we inquire about the truck, he fidgets. "We're not permitting logging anymore," he says. "We're going to try out economic alternatives. That lumber truck was the last one we allowed. It's broken down, and the driver went off to get spare parts." Later, I ask Almir if he believes Joaquim's story. "He's lying," he says. "He's still in business with the loggers."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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