Almir Surui was ten years old when the first logging truck came to his tiny village deep in the Amazon Rainforest. It came to chop down a single stand of centuries-old mahoganies, and it came with the grudging approval of the chiefs. After all, they reasoned, it was just one truck, one stand, one time, and for a good cause.
Long an isolated and almost mythic people of the Amazon, the Paiter-Surui were first contacted by Brazilian authorities in 1969. Numbering 5,000 at the time of First Contact, more than 90% of them died of tuberculosis and smallpox before Almir was born in 1974. He grew up under siege – from white invaders on one side and displaced indigenous people on the other.
By 1983, however, things were looking up. The Paiter-Surui (often just called “Surui”, the name Brazilian authorities bestowed upon them after misinterpreting a neighboring people’s name for “enemy”) had won demarcation for their territory from federal authorities, and they were keen to shift their strategy away from war and bloodshed and towards politics and commerce. That meant they needed money for travel to and from Brasilia.
The loggers offered to cover that expense in exchange for one stand of trees – worth, it turns out, orders of magnitude more than what the Surui received for them.
“That first sale made sense, given the information they had,” says Almir, who became overall chief of the Surui in late 2010. “But that sale led to another and another. It opened an era of short-termism focused on easy money, and soon everything was out of control. Logging trucks were running roughshod over our territory.”
The trucks came by the scores on roads built with money from the World Bank’sPolonoroeste initiative (the “Northeast Pole Northwest Region Integrated Development Program”). By 1986, high-ranking officials from the Indigenous Affairs Agency (Fundação Nacional do Índio, FUNAI) were encouraging the logging operations in exchange for kickbacks from timber companies, and Almir – though barely into his teens – became one of their most vocal critics.
“Many of our own people supported logging,” he says. “I’d argue they had become fixated on the tangible income from logging while overlooking its intangible but very real cost.”
It was a cost not limited to logging, and not borne just by the Surui.
“Neighboring people like the Cinta Larga accepted money from miners, only to find that mining killed the fish,” he says. “Now they spend more money on groceries than they ever got from miners.”
Off to School
By 1988, Almir had achieved an impressive academic record which – together with his eloquent critique of logging – earned him a spot at the Centro de Pesquisa Indigena. The brainchild of indigenous leader Ailton Krenak, the Centro brought young Indigenes like Almir out of the rainforest and into the Universidade Federal de Goiás, where he studied applied biology.
Upon graduation in 1992, he was elected chief of his clan, the Gameb. He dutifully married and settled into his village, where he planned to implement a sustainable agriculture program. Tribal elders – most of whom were under 40 themselves after the devastating plagues of the 1970s – had other plans.
The Go-Go Nineties
The Rio Earth Summit had just launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the World Bank had just launched the Rondônia Natural Resources Management Project (Planafloro), which was an effort to right the wrongs visited by Polonoroeste.
Unlike its predecessor, Planafloro created a vehicle for the active involvement of forest people and local NGOs. Almir, though not even 20 years old, was elected head of CUNPIR (Coordenação ads nacoes de Povos Indígenas de Rondônia, Sul do Amazonas e Norte do Mato Grosso/the Coordination of Nations and Indian Peoples of Rondônia, Southern Amazonas and Northern Mato Grosso), which represented indigenous groups across three Brazilian states.
It was a position that soon brought him into conflict with organizations he had long admired, some of which had been helping indigenous peoples in Rondônia since the early 1970s.