Using the Internet to Save the Rainforest

At Loggerheads with the Loggers

The Sete de Setembro reservation survived as a green wedge hemmed in by farms, villages, and roads. It survived because the Surui drove away settlers and loggers alike, strung iron chains across the roads, and moved their villages to better prevent encroachment into their reservation. But 2,428 square kilometers is too vast an area for 1,300 Indios to be able to guard constantly. The Surui lost 7 percent of their forest, but have saved 93 percent. Their's is the last area of forest in this part of Rondônia, in which 4,000 people still live off the logging industry.

"But let us start at the beginning," the chief says. "Let's drive to Lapetanha."

We get into his pickup truck and he drives past gas stations, scrap yards, and hotels that let rooms by the hour. Eventually we see fields of soy beans, banana plantations, and black-and-white Friesian cows standing in fields full of charred tree stumps. "All this was once our land," he says modestly and quietly in soft Portuguese. He can't remember what it used to look like. After all, the forest was already gone when he left his village for the first time at the age of 14. Nor can he remember much about the fighting or his father, who helped drive the settlers out of the reservation -- he armed with a bow and arrow, they with guns. "I just remember the fear," Almir Surui says.

The fear is all that remains. People standing by the roadside stare as Almir's car drives past, and they look increasingly hostile the closer we get to the reservation. Many of them are loggers who used to live in the reservation. Three years ago the loggers and sawmill owners put a $100,000 bounty on his head, and the chief was forced to flee to the US.

Two Worlds

It takes an hour to drive back in time from one world to another.

In one world Almir Surui has two wives, one in Cacoal, the other in Porto Velho, as well as five children, a house with a garden and a dachshund. In this world he is something akin to the foreign minister of the Amazonian Indians. He has traveled to 26 countries, been at the United Nations in New York, taken part in the Copenhagen climate summit, and had an audience with Prince Charles in London. Al Gore intends to pay him a visit in the near future. In December the Brazilian magazine Época named him as one of the hundred most important Brazilians, together with soccer star Kaká, model Gisele Bündchen, and writer Paulo Coelho. He is a member of two government commissions, and during the elections in the summer he will be standing for a parliamentary seat as a member of the Green Party.

His other world is Lapetanha, the place of his birth in the reservation, the village where he was elected chief at the age of 17 because his father had been a chief before him and perhaps also because they sensed that he was somewhat special. In this world, the people eat grubs and only got electricity four years ago. Here he paints dots and lines on his face and body during religious festivals, the remains of which can be seen as faint blue coloring shimmering on his skin.

This is the world which was rocked by modernity 41 years ago when workers cleared a path through the forest as a prelude to the construction of a highway. This road brought with it settlers, cattle, cars, and telephones. Today, in many settlements you can find a chest freezer in which the villagers put the peccaries they hunted with bows and arrows.

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