written by nanette phillips with evelyn messinger
Less than 50 years ago, the Paiter-Suruí tribe remained one of the few Amazon forest peoples who had very limited contact with the ‘modern’ world. But in 1969, when a highway was built through the pristine Amazonian rainforest and the Surui territory, the way was paved - literally - for the insatiable extractivism of illegal logging and mining.
A few decades later, the Suruí and other local tribes were decimated by disease, and fighting for their very lives. This is when they got a little lucky: the rubber tapper turned internationally-renowned activist Chico Mendes created the forest people's alliance. The Paiter-Surui territory, whose limits are now legally demarcated, stands out as an emerald green swatch amidst a tapestry of brown deforested land:
And they were lucky to be visited by a group of American film makers, whose Brazilian sound recordist, Denise Zmekhol, was also a photographer. Her photos began a chain of events that have put the tribe at the heart of her award-winning film “Children of The Amazon” as well as the film from which our video, Mapping Survival, was drawn.
At around the same time, the Suruí elders turned to the modern, capitalist world in one way at least: they sent the young generation to school. Some, like Almir Suruí, even went to college in the big city. This was probably how he knew about Google.
Almir became Chief Almir when the tribe decided to follow his vision: to put the Paiter-Suruí land "on the map" - a Google map - and in the process to “trade in their bows and arrows for laptops.”
Well aware of the major cultural discrepancies, Chief Almir nonetheless believed the mapping project, carried out by tribal elders and youth alike, would “strengthen those whose livelihoods directly depend on a healthy ecosystem” by instigating a dialogue with the rest of the world about land conservation and indigenous rights.
In collaboration with Google, the Suruí have created a 3D cultural map of their territory, which catalogues the forest’s living assets. The tribe used the map, which marks historical sites, animal hunting grounds and vegetation, to wrap it’s own history in a wonderful assortment of images, retelling their story in a little over 11 minutes, here:
The map launched the Suruí from invisibility into the global spotlight. They have their own website now, and the maps allow the tribe, as well as NGO’s like the World Resources Institute, to monitor illegal logging activity in the Amazon. And mapping the territory was the first step in implementing the Surui Forest Carbon Project, giving the tribe the right to earn income by planting trees that offset carbon use somewhere else in the world. This is part of REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus sustainable forest management). The project, it is hoped, will generate an estimated $10.8 million dollars for the tribe.
REDD+ has been criticized by some activist groups for being yet another capitalist scheme that will benefit those driving deforestation most. Chief Almir sees it differently though, as “a mechanism that unites our values and those of the non-indigenous capitalist world.” Chief Almir was confident that "you can develop in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all."
The Paiter-Surui’s implementation of REDD+ coincided with Brazil cutting deforestation rates, according to Newsweek, by three-quarters and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 39% percent, making Brazil something of a “golden child” within the environmental movement.
But Brazil’s good reputation was short lived. In 2013, deforestation was back on the rise, a fact that the Brazilian government attempted to conceal according to an article in Newsweek. The Paiter-Surui territory is within the ‘arc of deforestation’ in Brazil, where 40 truckloads of illegally harvested timber were extracted daily.
While the country continues to feel pressured to respond to the escalating environmental crisis, the battle cry for ‘progress’ resounds much more loudly within many government offices. The Minister of Agriculture, Kátia Abreu, said, “there are many things holding back progress—the environmental issue, the Indian issue and more…Imagine how high it [productivity] might be without those obstacles.”
Almir and his fellow community members have not backed down in their efforts to halt illegal logging while defending “the rights and integrity of peoples living in voluntary isolation.” But even with sophisticated monitoring technologies and cutting-edge carbon sequestering initiatives, without a government willing to work with indigenous groups and enforce the existing laws against illicit logging, the Amazon’s future remains at risk.