The native American chief who dedicated his life to fighting against deforestation of the Amazon


Like the hummingbird in the Native American legend who strove single-handedly to extinguish a huge forest fire with a few drops of water from his beak while the other animals watched, powerless and sceptical, Native American chief Almir Narayamoga Suruí chose to ‘do what he could’. This symbolic leader of the 1,400 Suruí people who live in a very remote part of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, fights tirelessly against the deforestation which is ravaging the Amazon rainforest, his ‘Mother Earth’.

Does he do it to ‘save the planet’, as suggested by the title of his essay-manifesto which has just been published with the help of the French travel writer Corine Sombrun? Probably not (he says so himself). He does it to prevent the destruction of part of the forest and to find a natural equilibrium once again. A fight which has meant a price being put on his head three times, obliging him to travel under police escort.

25.03 déforestation

Native American chief Almir Narayamoga Suruí (AFP PHOTO / VANDERLEI ALMEIDA)

In this captivating tale, drafted as an open letter to his five children should he be assassinated, the chief, recognisable by his traditional cocar (headdress) of eagle feathers, alternates between his personal story, the history and traditions of his people, and concrete initiatives to generate profit from the forest without destroying it.

Pressure of livestock breeding and intensive agriculture

In half a century, nearly a fifth of the Amazon rainforest, the green lung of the planet, has disappeared under the pressure of livestock breeding, intensive agriculture and the production of wood, leading to 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The state of Rondônia, in north-west Brazil, is one of the most hard-hit areas, having lost 40% of its primary forest.

These clearing operations forced the Paiter Suruí (‘the real people’), whose territory extends over 250,000 km², to abandon their isolation in 1969. Their first contact with white people – the iaraei, loggers, prospectors and settlers – led initially to confrontation and epidemics, and saw the indigenous population drop from 5,000 to 240. Then came trade, under more or less forced conditions. Their costumes and ancestral rites, led by shamams who communicated with forest spirits, the sky and the rivers, began to change and give way to a new, more modern way of life, where hunting, fishing, harvesting and traditional crafts were no longer enough.

Tracking down illegal logging with GPS systems

Faced with the prospect of his people starting to sell their land, Almir Narayamogo Suruí, who was appointed chief of his tribe (the Gameb) at the age of 17 and then of his entire people at 26, sought to find a ‘model where environmental protection could also be linked to profit’. He initially tried to re-establish their traditions, teaching the Suruí once again to paint ritual designs on their bodies, establishing classes to teach Portuguese and Tupi-Mondé, the local language, and setting up health programmes to reduce mortality.

Then, by combining ancestral culture and high tech methodologies, the young chief, the only of his people to have received a university degree (in biology), established a fifty year plan to sustainably manage the forest’s resources: he set up a moratorium on logging, planted 100,000 trees and tracked down illegal logging operations using GPS systems provided by Google. ‘I feel just as at home with a bow and arrow as I do with an iPhone, a Twitter account or Facebook page’, he says.

Carbon compensation scheme                           


The land of the Suruí (Photo Thomas Pizer – Aquaverde)

Above all, he launched a carbon compensation scheme, certified by two international bodies in 2012. The principle is to sell carbon credits to companies who want to compensate for their CO2 emissions, corresponding to the protection of trees, reservoirs for greenhouse gases. The result is that, despite the continued presence of illegal logging on their land, the Suruí were able to avoid the equivalent of 250,000 tonnes of carbon emissions between 2009 and 2012.

A few months ahead of the climate conference in Paris, which should lead to an agreement to limit global warming to 2°C by the end of the century, and although we are still seeking to reconcile ecology and the economy, the aim of this work is far broader than simply defending the Amazon rainforest: it is to create a global development model which draws from the wisdom of the people of the forest to create a new model of democracy and of living.

By Audrey Garric >> Follow her on Facebook: Eco(lo) and on Twitter: @audreygarric

Reblogged from Le Monde

Photos © Thomas Pizer – Aquaverde – Afp Photo/ Vanderlei Almeida – Le Monde