Almir Sarayamoga Suruí, the Amazonian tribal chieftain of the indigenous Suruí people, is a leader in the fight to save the rainforest not only for the preservation of his land and people, but for the Earth’s and humanity’s survival as well. Joining forces with such high-tech corporations as Apple and Google Earth, Suruí has become a guardian of his people and a global activist, despite death threats and million dollar bounties on his head. A recipient of the Global Citizen Award in 2012, Suruí has calculated the direct cost of the loss of our rainforests—"the lungs of the Earth”—in terms of the total amount of Co2 that their destruction would release into the atmosphere, and the monetary loss that this would entail, and by using this carbon deficit formula, has leased access to pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies who have joined him in the stewardship of these endangered lands, their flora, fauna, and people.
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About the Author
Almir Sarayomaga Suruí was the first member of his tribe to graduate from college (with a degree in biology) and the youngest of the Suruí tribe to be made chief, at age 17. He has traveled the world to unite the indigenous people of the equatorial rain forests in their fight to save these vital regions of the earth. Corine Sombrun is an adventure and environmental journalist whose books include Journal of an Apprentice Shaman and In The Footsteps of Geronimo. Julia Grawemeyer is a professor of French Literature at Denison University, Granville, Ohio.
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My name is Almir Narayamoga Suruí and this is my legacy.
I was born on August 19, 1974 in the State of Rondônia, on the 7th of September Indigenous Reserve. At the age of 36, I was elected the leader of the Paiter Suruí people. As you know, my whole life has been dedicated to the struggle to help my people survive. And to help the Amazon rainforest survive.
Now I am in my forties.
I have two wives.
I have my six children.
And two body guards.
I must begin by saying that everything started with the BR-364, the dirt road built by the whites at the beginning of the 1960s to reach the unexplored land of the northwest Brazilian Amazon. The 5,000 people that made up the Paiter Suruí lived on a territory twenty times the size of New York City, about 12,500 square miles. Our ancestors settled here at some point during the 19century in order to flee the advancing settlers. But from the 1900s on, the opening of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad and the installation of the first telegraph line in the Amazon endangered our isolation. One can easily imagine reasons why this was the case, but to help you understand what was at stake, I feel it is important to take the time to explain a few key moments in this process.
First of all, the telegraph line. Colonel Cândido Rondon led the project. The line had to traverse the 906 miles of jungle connecting Cuiabá, the administrative center of the neighboring state of Mato Grosso, to Porto Velho, the administrative center of Rondônia. Despite the help of the Bororo people in the south, with whom Colonel Rondon maintained very good relations, it took four years for this project to be accomplished. The telegraph line had to go around the Pantanal, the swampiest wetlands in the world, and reach the city of Corumba on the Paraguay River. I admit this was a tremendous feat, but it triggered the first migration wave which consisted mainly of seringueiros, tappers of rubber trees, drawn there by the rubber boom at the end of the 19 century.
This wave might not have been enough to end our isolation if not for another "rubber fever," in the 1940s, as well as the simultaneous discovery of mines of cassiterite (a tin oxide used in electronics). This provoked an increase in the population of more than 50%. Inevitably, this caused numerous conflicts with the natives. Trying to avoid all contact with these "invaders," our people decided to leave their villages and take refuge even further into the interior of the region, which was at that time called Guaporé. We live there still, but in 1946 the region's name was changed to the State of Rondônia. As you may have guessed, the name pays homage to Cândido Rondon. This change was justified by his exceptional accomplishments.
Rondon led the installation of more than 6,000 km (906 miles) of telegraph line in the jungles of Brazil and had one of his toes devoured by piranhas in the process. He led several explorations, one of which was a scientific expedition with Theodore Roosevelt on the Rio da Dúvida (the River of Doubt). In 1910, Rondon was the military engineer behind the creation of the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio (the Indian Protection Service, or SPI), which was a major advancement in the struggle for indigenous rights. But I need to get to the 1960s, which marked a pivotal moment in our tribe's history.
* * *
Rondônia's border location, as well as the pressure of the neighboring Peruvians and Bolivians (who were very numerous compared to the 70,000 Brazilians of the region), were incentives for colonization projects, one of which was the construction of roads. What drove the construction of the BR-364 road at the end of the 1950s was the Kubitschek government's desire to connect the new capital, Brasilia, to the other main cities of the country, and then to connect central Brazil to the rest of Latin America. This is how in 1964, the path to the segment connecting Cuiabá to Porto Velho (in addition to intensive agricultural development) put a definitive end to our seclusion.
At that time, we were not officially in contact with the whites and we were called Paiter, "the true people, we ourselves" because our archery skills were so good that we did not need to put poison on our arrows to kill our targets. My father, your grand-father, also told us that our people tried to avoid depleting the rainforest by taking only the game, fruit, gongo (larva of the coconut borer found in the fruit of the babaçu palm) and honey that they needed. In order to not exhaust the land, we cultivated and regularly rotated plots of corn, manioc, yams, beans, rice, bananas, peanuts, papayas, cotton and tobacco.
We also shared social rules that were well-defined. In addition to the shared value of helping each other, the men and women planted and fished together. But it was up to the men to make the bows, the arrows and the tembetá, which are the jatobá — ornaments of polished resin — placed in the inside of the lower lip of each of the members of our tribe. Each man was also obligated to offer several days' work in the fields of any family member that did not live in his house. Additionally, men had to hunt and clear plots of land to be used for farming. The women were responsible for taking care of the children, preparing meals, weaving, and harvesting. They were also our artisans, making crafts such as ceramic pots, baskets, belts and necklaces.
Any economic activity was organized primarily around family groups, whereas community life was separated into two halves. One half was connected to the forest (the metare group, responsible more specifically for crafts, hunting, fishing and gathering) and the other to the plots of land (the iwai group, responsible for farming). But each half switched roles according to very specific cycles throughout the year. This division between tribal members working in the forest and in the fields provided the basis for our annual calendar. This calendar determined the important moments of our social world, including food production, festivals and rituals. During the dry season from May to October, the half assigned to the forest would camp at a small area (metareilá) cleared about 500 meters (546 yards) from the village. This space was off-limits to the other half.
Our tribe was equally divided into several clans. There were as many as ten clans before but there are only four left, as you know, called Kaban, Gamir, Makor, and Gameb. Like my father, I am a part of the Gameb clan, named for the most fearsome black hornet of the rainforest. This name belongs to warriors, whose role has always been to protect our people from the four other tribes of the region: the Zoró, who live to the north of our territory, the Cinta-Larga to the east between Jurena and Roosevelt, the Gavião to the northwest and the Arara to the west of the Zoró territory. With just a few slight differences, we all speak a common language that is in the Tupi language family in the Monde branch. We manage to understand one another, but we estimate that there are 170 indigenous dialects in Brazil, mostly variations of the Tupi, Jê, Aruak, Carib and Panoan language families.
Let me come back to that morning in 1969 that was going to mark the end of our seclusion. Marimop and a few of his Gameb brothers had left on a scouting mission to warn of an attack of the Zoró Indians, who we call our "best enemies." Our warriors reached the summit of the highest hill of our land when in the distance, in the valley, they saw trees falling, swallowed by the mouth of an enormous snake with a yellow head. They calmly observed the animal, thinking that it would eventually eat its fill. But nothing seemed to be able to stop it. Day after day, this glutton sunk his teeth into the hévéas, the babaçù, the tucumà, the copaïba, the pacohb, the fig trees, opening and emptying the rainforest as none of their machetes had ever done before. When the creature was on the verge of entering into their territory, leaving a single furrow of red earth in its path, they decided it was time to stop it. It was then that they discovered that the white man was commanding it. Their elders had mentioned this to my grandfather and his group, but it was the first time that they had seen it for themselves. Despite the terrible scene before them, they decided to take up their role as warriors and go to face the white men and ask them to stop the animal. The leader of the white men made it clear that it was a machine, a "bulldozer," and that it was going to continue to swallow the forest.
The conflict began then and there.
We had been five thousand before this first contact. Five thousand, do you realize? Many of our warriors were killed. Many whites were killed. And the more the whites killed our people, the more of our people killed the whites. So, a man was designated to establish peaceful contact with our tribe since, according to his bosses, we were living dangerously close to the path of the BR-364 and we were in the way of its completion.
This man, Francisco Meireles, was a sertanista, a name given to the bureaucrats of the department that Cândido Rondon started, the SPI. These sertanistas were responsible for establishing contact with secluded tribes, and were generally experts in indigenous cultures. This was not the first mission of Francisco Meireles. He had been credited with successfully establishing contact with the Xavante to the east of the neighboring state of Mato Grosso in the 1940s, and then with the Pakaá Nova tribe near the upper Madeira in 1960. It was likely thanks to him that we are named Suruí, which meant "enemy" in the language of the people that had been his guides.
Considering himself too old, in 1969, Francisco Meireles left the mission of establishing contact with tribes in the hands of his son Apoena, who had been raised after his mother's death by a woman from the Xavante tribe. The process was always the same, you see: delaying first contact until it was deemed urgent and then moving forward to establish contact in the approach phase called "the attraction." This consisted of adopting a friendly behavior with the Indians, much different from how the settlers or prospectors typically behaved, and then giving gifts that were supposed to convince the tribes to come to the table and establish communication. Once this was accomplished, the Indians were pacified as well as trained and educated in order for them to "pass from acculturation to assimilation," to use the words of the SPI.
For nine months Apoena Meireles left mirrors, pans, knives and scissors in a spot that was highly frequented by our tribe, next to the village of Riozinho. Finally, one day, a group of warriors armed with bows and arrows came to meet Meireles. He gave them two machetes and he was offered fish in return. At the second meeting, Meireles showed up nearly completely naked to show that he was not armed. He gave them more gifts and when our people accepted them, he brought more. After four or five visits, our leaders decided to accept official contact and negotiate. My father, Marimop, however, was opposed to it. He was a respected warrior and had won numerous battles against the Zoró. He had warned the tribe that these iaraei, these whites, did not know the rainforest and that they would not respect it, just as they had demonstrated with their bulldozer. Despite this, the majority still rallied behind the leaders' decision, arguing that they were the first foreigners not intending to massacre our people. Additionally, they felt that if we didn't make peace with these people, we would inevitably be annihilated. But wasn't the example of the Cinta-Larga in 1963 still in everyone's memory?
At that time, our neighbors still had not been officially contacted. This would happen later in 1968, but before then they did what all the other tribes had done: they defended their land against the invasion of the gold seekers, settlers, and those who came to log their precious wood, and other mining companies. Exasperated by these conflicts, the foreman of the Arrudae Junqueira, a large rubber cultivation company, had simply decided to exterminate their tribe. Denounced later by a former inspector of the SPI of the city of Cuiabá, the foreman had rented a small Cessna plane to fly over a village in Cinta-Larga. Having taken care to choose the day that they were celebrating their yearly festivities, he flew over once and dropped packages of sugar. At first the Cinta-Larga were afraid but they quickly realized that it was food, and all gathered around to collect the packages. But they had barely opened them when the Cessna flew over once more and dropped sticks of dynamite. This attack was followed by a land raid on other villages. The testimonies recorded by a missionary and given to the SPI spoke of a veritable manhunt during which children were beheaded and women were raped. One of them was found hooked to a tree, still alive, but sliced open from pelvis to chin with a machete.
So yes, because they were asking courteously for once, our people preferred to establish peaceful contact with Apoena Meireles's team. Unfortunately, they did not suspect that this would lead to the near-elimination of our people.
First, two terrible epidemics — the flu and measles — hit our people. These were followed by a third in which the first symptoms manifested with a hoarse cough, expectorations, and a persistent fever that was fatal in less than two months. The local medical teams had no idea how to prevent and treat this sickness which was later identified as blastomycosis.
Doctor Chiappino, a French doctor, visited shortly after this contact with the whites. He was dismayed at the way in which the FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Indio) was handling the problem. The FUNAI had replaced the SPI (Indian Protection Service) in 1967. This change was driven by some events that were so serious that I will take the time to explain them here.
As I mentioned, the SPI was created on September 7, 1910 to handle relations between the indigenous tribes and the European immigrants. The SPI was the fruit of the labor of a small group of liberal activists inspired by Cândido Rondon who was its first director. The mission of this new organization was "to provide protection and assistance to the Indians of Brazil, to secure their way of life, their freedom and their land, to defend them from annihilation, to spare them from exploitation and oppression, and to protect them from poverty." The SPI also had orders to not attempt any conversion to Catholicism or any other religion. It had thus become a secular department of the government. I must say that after four centuries of conflict, brutality, and exploitation, the creation of this new department inspired a huge wave of hope among the Indians. Would we at last be respected and treated with decency?
Even though at first the SPI's mission was upheld, it quickly became difficult to control the agents sent into the territories that were very far removed from the central management. A local outpost was directed either by a salaried agent of the SPI or by an agent delegado who was not paid but who had to be able to justify his personal expenses. This inevitably led to some agents taking advantage of their local power in order to make money off of the indigenous land. They would call this "Indian payout," and it quickly became a common practice for the SPI agents to turn a blind eye to it all: the theft of indigenous land as well as the massacre of tribes who defended themselves against the loggers, prospectors, speculators and many explorers drawn by the extraordinary potential of these unexplored lands. Francisco Meireles denounced several expeditions mounted in retaliation against tribes, one of which was led by rubber tappers in 1952 against a village of Oroin Indians. He said it was known that they ripped out the eyes of Indian children before leaving them in the forest. This kind of barbarism did not help the efforts for peaceful negotiation led by Meireles in the name of the SPI. What's more, on most occasions the criminals remained unpunished. In 1967, the Minister of the Interior, General Afonso Augusto de Albuquerque Lima, learned of all of this and asked to open a parliamentary investigation into the actions of the SPI. The investigation report indeed revealed the atrocities committed against the Indians. "Torture comparable to that in Nazi camps," according to Attorney General Figueiredo Correia. Most of these acts were certainly not committed by agents of the SPI, but they were accused of letting them be perpetrated without denouncing them and without punishing the guilty parties. After having been convinced of the corruption and atrocities, the SPI was replaced in 1967 by the Fundação Nacional do Indio, the FUNAI.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Save the Planet"
Copyright © 2015 Almir Narayamoga Suruí and Corine Sombrun.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Corine Sombrun 11
Part I 19
1 Contact 20
2 The Settlers 28
3 The Polonoroeste Program 33
4 The Spirits of the Rainforests 36
5 Chief of the Gameb Clan 45
6 Asserting Our Rights 52
Part II 57
7 When the Sun Reddens 58
8 Planting Trees 60
9 The 50-Year Plan 67
10 The First Death Threats 70
11 Google 73
Part III 79
12 The Suruí Carbon Project 80
13 The "High-Tech Indians" 86
14 The Pamine Project 89
15 A Suruí University, Or What The Forest Can Teach Us 94
16 Accolades and More Death Threats 97
17 The Results 101
18 Tackling the Reforestation Problem 103
19 The Hummingbird 107
20 Avoiding and Ethno-Environmental Catastrophe 111
21 Decree 303 118
Afterword Corine Sombrun 130
Publisher's Update 135
About the Authors 136