Its 8.30 in the morning in the Rondônia regional capital of Cacoal, Brazil. A cattle town with a frontier feel filled with "Marlboro" men adorned with Stetson hats and cowboy boots. Four days of near continuous rainfall has given way to bright sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. Almir Narayamoga, 36 years old, stockily built and born on the Amazon rainforest floor, is Chief of the Paiter Surui and he is just arriving at his office on the outskirts of Cacoal.
The Paiter Surui tribe of Indians occupy the "7 de setembro indigenous reserve", 250 thousand hectares of Amazonian rainforest spanning the Brazilian Midwest states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso. Their territory's name marks the date in 1969 when they first made contact with the "Branco" - their name for the white man. A date that was to change the lives of the Surui people forever.
Their numbers in 1969, they claim, totalled some five thousand but their population was soon to be faced with near extinction by the effects of disease, hunger and the ravages of alcoholism brought on by contact with the outside world. A scenario that has been depressingly repeated across most of the planet once indigenous peoples have encountered modernity. The population reached a low point of just over 250 Surui left alive within just a few years from first contact.
Almirs story and his struggle to help his people started nineteen years ago when at the age of 17 he was elected chief of his clan - a position his father Marimo Surui had also held. He was the first Surui to attend University, spending 3 years in college studying Biology. At the age of 23 he and another Brazilian environmental activist, Jose Maria dos Santos, travelled to Washington to try and convince the World Bank to audit their loan to the state of Rondônia for the agricultural project "Plana Flora". Money and materials that had been allocated to go to indigenous tribes had not been forthcoming. The World Bank subsequently restructured the method of their loan and the indigenous tribes got paid directly.
Other battles throughout the 1990s followed. He forced officials from Rondônia to sink wells for drinking water and build schools inside the Surui's reserve. He also turned his attention to the tribe’s population decline that was bringing them dangerously close to extinction. He advised families to have more children and enticed indigenous Indians from other tribes to join the Surui and live on their land. The population now stands at just over thirteen hundred spread across twenty-three villages on their reserve.
Almirs efforts to organise his tribe has not come without a high degree of personal risk to himself and his extended family. In the last 13 years eleven tribal chiefs have been murdered, two of them Surui. In 1997 Almir was forced to flee the reserve with the help of the American non-governmental organisation "Amazon Conservation Team" when a bounty for his murder of one hundred thousand dollars was allegedly placed on his head by Loggers who were threatened by his actions organising the Indians against their illegal destruction of the rainforest on the reserve. He returned after 7 months and states when questioned: "Publicity is my best defence".
The Brazilian Amazonian Rainforest holds sixty percent of the world’s tropical forests and is the planets most biologically diverse ecosystem. A further nine countries bordering Brazil make up the Amazon Basin, holding twenty percent of the earths fresh water and producing twenty percent of its oxygen. If it is destroyed then effectively so are we.
Today in Cacoal Almir is met by three forest engineers from "IDESAM", a non-governmental organisation that carries a mandate for the conservation of natural resources and sustainable development and is based in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. They came to train six Surui to operate GPS equipment, pre-installed with a unique software programme to precisely record the density of the rainforest. These men will measure type, location and size of trees in order to calculate the amount of carbon held in their homelands forests. The Surui will be the first indigenous community in the Amazon Basin to be paid by the industrialised world to protect their rainforest through carbon trading. The scheme is known as REDD which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradationand is intended to reduce greenhouse gasses.
Almir addresses the meeting and decisions are quickly made by consensus on whom of the present Surui will take on the difficult work of penetrating the deepest areas of their reserve to verify the carbon it holds. Forest Engineer Gabriel Carrero then starts the two-day training course at the end of which the Surui will have acquired an additional technological skill they can utilize within their lands.
Driving out of Cacoal on the RO 471 - known locally as "the coffee road" - we head for the village of Lapetanha, home to the Chiefs tribe (the Indians living there being a mix of four clans which make up the Paiter Surui). During the hour long journey Almir outlines his strategy for the revival of the Tribe.
"My people have had many problems: health, education, loss of culture and invasion of our territory. In 1997 we initiated a 50-year plan designed to reforest our lands and bring employment and pride back to our people. We decided not to fight anymore with our bows and arrows but to use computers, the Internet and technology to bring attention to our situation. If we hadn’t done that then as a people we would have been finished and so would the rainforest. Training and education is now our kind of war, we know we have to adapt” he states. Progress on the tarmac covered "coffee road" comes to an abrupt end when we take a sharp left onto a dirt track - simply known as "Line 11". The four-wheel drive pickup comes into its element as it navigates ruts and crosses trees laid flat to span streams. Almir stops the vehicle at the entrance to the reserve, a point marked by a sign nailed to a tree as well as by the visual return of the Rainforest itself, which has all but disappeared prior to reaching the reserve. Walking into the rain forest to inspect some recently planted trees Almir remarks "This is part of our 50 year plan: we want to plant at least a million trees and return the rainforest to its pristine condition"
Returning to the pickup we travel deeper into Surui territory eventually arriving at the village of Lapetanha. Electricity reached the village about four years ago. It has a school, a church and 102 inhabitants. Three computers occupy their own room in the school, two a gift from Google Outreach, part of the Google Internet Company. Google visited the Surui after Almir in 2007 had decided to travel unannounced to their offices in California and make a personal plea for their help. Staff from Google subsequently visited the reserve and gave technical training to the Surui through a series of workshops and the donation of computers. However, only one of the computers was still working during our time at the village. When questioned when the others would be repaired, Mopilaa, a 20-year-old Surui, replied "Soon". The Surui's Internet connection is possible only in Cacoal, there are no telephone or mobile communications on the reserve itself.
Almir's vision is to completely digitize the reservation one day. Using blogs, video messaging and digital images as a way the Surui can communicate with the outside world and the outside world can communicate with them. Benefitting them with satellite imagery which allows them to be able to monitor their lands warning of illegal logging attempts or invasions from farmers bringing slash and burn agriculture. Their site on Google earth will incorporate the ethno map of their land produced some years ago in partnership with the Amazon Conservation Team, it details the Surui's cultural and historical history.
"Alone we Surui cannot manage to reconstruct this region. We need the help of the whole world", Almir remarks as we leave the pickup. Standing in the shade of one of the Malocas, a traditional dwelling built by the Surui, we are joined by the team that will enter the Rainforest to record its carbon capacity. Vasco van Roosemallen, head of the Amazon Conservation Team in Brazil, has travelled from Brasilia to accompany the group on its first training day in the rainforest. Talking to us he says, "The great thing about the Surui is that they try to find their own solutions to the problems they face." He continues, " If you look at the Arc of Destruction of the Amazonian Rainforest, the areas that still have forest are indigenous lands. They are absolutely crucial to holding back de-forestation."
The teams board another two pickup's and travel as far as possible into the forest by dirt track. When the four wheel drives can travel no further its time to leave the vehicles and proceed by foot carrying water, machetes and the vital GPS equipment used for mapping location and type of trees in order to later calculate their carbon content. Visibility through the dense undergrowth drops dramatically and humidity must be close to one hundred percent. Sweat pours down my, Vasco's and the two other non-indigenous Tree Engineers faces, quickly all our clothing is wet through. Understandably the Surui handle the conditions better. Once we reach a halt and start to mark out the forest for the team’s first measurements we become a meal for much of the insects around us. Ants the size of your thumb that leave a vicious and fever inducing bite have to be avoided as I inadvertently kick over one of their floor level nests which doesn’t make me the most popular "Branco" in the rainforest that day. After 20 minutes in these conditions I’ve personally had enough but we endure for another three hours until everybody is confident with the equipment. Following today’s training the teams will later spend a gruelling 15 days in the Jungle.
Returning to Lapetanha we are greeted by Surui children happily playing with a freedom now rarely seen in western cultures. Some Surui are making jewellery, toddlers are being washed by their mothers while other Surui are simply resting in hammocks. With Readers Digests interpreter Louise Sherwood I talk again with Almir asking him if he feels hopeful for the future survival of the rainforest and his people. "A couple of years ago nobody thought there could be a black president of the United States but he is there. Eight years ago nobody believed Lula could be president of Brazil. Two or three years ago nobody believed that we would get all the loggers out of our lands but we did. It’s the start of change. Every day we believe that we will reach our ultimate goal. A better future for all."
© Craig Stennett