He can still handle a bow. But Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui says his weapon of choice is technology: Android phones to monitor illegal logging, hand-held Global Positioning System devices to map territory and Google Earth Outreach to show the world what a well-managed forest looks like.
Wielding the tools of the 21st century, the 1,300-member tribe has delved into a complex scheme in which governments or companies pay for forest preservation, contributing to a system that, if fully realized, would help end large-scale deforestation. By determining how much carbon is prevented from being released if the trees on Surui lands are left standing, the tribe hopes to sell carbon credits internationally to offset greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries.
This is the first time an indigenous group has adopted this type of conservation plan, which could become a model for tribes searching for ways to save their lands. And environmentalists say its development in this swath of Amazonia is due largely to Almir’s feverish diplomacy: his 16 trips to the United States, the meetings with tech companies and the sit-downs with Wall Street financiers, U.S. senators and the likes of Prince Charles.
“I think it’s working,” said the chief, who is heavyset, with a broad, fleshy face and bangs that cover his forehead. “I wouldn’t have gone to 33 countries to talk about our culture, our health care, our education and the way things are if it wouldn’t work.”
The Surui have also become adept at drawing would-be allies to their Rhode Island-size reserve.
“When we were there, we were blown away,” said Josh Knauer, chief executive of the Pittsburgh software company Rhiza, which built one of the user interfaces on the phones the Surui use. “I was pleasantly surprised by how many members of the tribe adapted to the technology, adapted it for their use. And they were adapting it on the fly.”
The Surui’s efforts to save their forest and themselves have taken place in a region of Brazil not usually associated with cutting-edge conservation tactics.
People here like to say that this state, Rondonia, is like the Wild West, a place where loggers and settlers penetrate Indian land, where traffickers smuggle cocaine and where hired pistoleros have killed Indians who were in the way of development.
“Rondonia is the laboratory for everything that can be used to take down the forest,” said Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, the head of Kaninde, an indigenous rights group. “And we export these methods to other states.”
Need for change
Until the late 1960s, the Surui were considered “uncontacted,” having had little association with modern Brazil. But then came road-building crews, which Surui warriors attacked with bows and arrows.