In the Brazilian Amazon, there are hundreds of indigenous tribes that have lived sustainably for thousands of years. The rainforest sustains them, and their way of life has sustained and preserved the forest. The Surui is one of these tribes.
First contact with the Surui was made in 1969 by government agents when a road was built right through their territory. Over the next 40 years this road brought hundreds of thousands of people to Western Amazon. In 1987, I first went to the Amazon to assist on some documentaries. During the next three years, I went back and forth several times, and visited the Surui and Negarote indigenous communities. I also met the rubber tappers, including Chico Mendes. The rubber tappers came from other regions of Brazil to harvest latex from the wild rubber trees, and they had joined with the indigenous people to protect the forest. And now, 40 years later, their way of life and the forest in which they had lived was being destroyed. There was this explosion of logging, ranching, farming and mining, industries that were consuming the forest with little or no control.
I returned to the Amazon 15 years later. This is the subject of my film “Children of the Amazon.” During this time I met Chief Almir of the Surui tribe. I was amazed at how quickly the forest was disappearing, but I was also inspired by how people in the indigenous communities were fighting to preserve it, and to find a voice in the complex society that they were becoming part of. Not long afterwards, Chief Almir discovered Google Earth at an internet cafe near his village, and contacted Google to see if they could help him raise visibility for his tribe. Google agreed to help Chief Almir and to train his people to use computer technology to protect Surui lands, preserve their culture, and empower their people.
Over these 40 years, the tribes of the Surui and Negarote have gone from complete self sufficiency to being part of a complex economy. Unfortunately that economy is not always sustainable, but rather based on removing resources, old growth trees, even fruit trees, and burning the land to create pasture for animals. The economic pressure to exploit the forest is very strong. The murder of Chico Mendes by ranchers in 1988 drew international attention to these issues, but even in the time since then, indigenous leaders are threatened and sometimes killed.
Many of the indigenous peoples of Brazil have recognized that education, knowledge and communication are key to their survival. As you can see in the clip, part of their work with Google has been the creation of a “ethno-cultural map,” recording their knowledge and history of the forest, medicinal plants, the site of first contact. Recognizing that they must have income that doesn’t destroy their land, Chief Almir has created a 50 year plan of sustainable development based on education, reforestation, and gaining access to the international carbon offset markets. I am inspired by their continuous work on behalf of this planet which we all must figure out how best to share.
If you are interested in getting involved, you can start by learning about sustainable practices and fair trade products in your area. For example, the more you understand about fair trade coffee, tea and lumber, the more you can make informed decisions. If you are buying hardwood floors and furniture, you can find out where the lumber is from and how it is certified. Local choices are always more sustainable than commodities shipped from far away, but if you are using Brazilian wood products, look closely at the certification. Making informed choices on what you purchase is one of the ways you can help increase the incentive for sustainable development.