The first of his tribe to obtain a college degree, Chief Almir was focused entirely on putting a stop to the logging activities that are destroying the world’s largest and most diverse rainforest: the Amazon. The Amazon Forest supplies 20% of our oxygen; chopping down its trees is a great disservice to humanity.
But not everyone is concerned about what will happen in the future. As long as there’s money to be made in present-time, they will continue to cut down century-old trees. Chief Almir of the Paiter Surui tribe has spent all 17 of his years in the forest, co-existing with nature. Ever since modernity found its way to their once-resolute piece of land, preventing the extinction of his tribe has been the top priority.
Chief Almir eventually grew tired of the bloodshed, so he went to an internet café and started googling. He learned about sustainable projects and Google Earth Outreach. There is a misconception about the Amazon, a belief that it is not home to human beings; seeing his tribe’s exact location on the map reading “uninhabited area” gave him the push he needed to step out of his comfort zone and brave the unknown.
Dropping his bow and arrows, he set out to the United States to tell the story of his unheard-of tribe, and he did not come home empty-handed. He convinced Google to support their efforts and map their territory to help police it and discourage mindless logging. They have also partnered with other organizations that help raise funds [independently] by protecting their trees. They have also found a way to sell carbon credits that can be purchased by companies to lessen their emissions. It’s a win-win approach in that they need not cut trees to get by – they are protecting their home, and making sure the Amazon Forest can be seen by future generations.
Almir Narayamoga was born in Rondônia [in the Amazon Rainforest] in 1974 to Tribal Chieftain Marimo Surui. By the time he was born, their tribe had made contact with outsiders who lured them into making money by allowing loggers to cut down trees. The government of Brazil only improved the situation for loggers by enacting new laws which generally favored capitalists.
The Tribal Chief could only do so much to stop them. With money involved, the tribe members welcomed the loggers, unaware that they were after all of their trees – not just a few. Despite having a population of five-thousand, the Paiter Surui tribe was decimated by disease brought from contact with the outside world. They had not contended with tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox and other epidemics until trade relations with non-tribal members put them at risk of being infected with such illnesses.
Contact with outsiders commenced around 1969; Almir was born about five years later. By then, only 250 Surui tribesmen had survived the epidemic. Nearing extinction with their home threatened to be destroyed beyond repair, Almir witnessed many fierce fights. His tribe was desperate to survive. The loggers were intent on cutting down and obtaining as many trees as possible, and the government offered little protection; it was the kind of environment that truly shaped Almir into a fearless leader.
Being as intelligent as he was, he made it to Centro de Pesquisa Indigena, a school founded by Ailton Krenak, an indigenous leader himself. The school works like a preparatory institution for students who will then advance to Universidade Federal de Goiás, where Almir studied for three years and completed his degree in Applied Biology.
The Surui tribe was accustomed to a simple life within their territory, which was why college was not a high priority. Almir braved going to a university, something no one else in his tribe had done before.
It’s no surprise that Almir likes doing things that have never been done before. Take, for instance, his vocal disapproval of illegal logging. At 14 years old, Almir was already taking part in discussions of how to mitigate illegal logging activities in the Amazon. Such leadership was already evident in him, even at a young age.
He was 17 years old when tasked to lead his tribe. After college, he headed back to Surui to fulfill his duties. His first project was to have World Bank audit its funding to support Rondônia through “Plana Flora.” Apparently, the funds did not get to the people who are supposed to receive them, so he negotiated alongside environmentalist Jose Maria dos Santos to have the money released to them and spared from going through bureaucracy.
Partnering with Google Earth
Eventually, Almir had to face the issue of illegal logging head-on. The government seems to condone it, since it enables people in position to have large sums of kick-backs. His tribe members and clan leaders were no longer as adamant to stop illegal logging because of its financial aspect.
Needless to say, illegal logging only worsened over time, and Almir had to act fast. He knew that depending on aid from organizations would not get them anywhere; they had to be autonomous. In order to achieve that, they needed sustainable sources of income without compromising their home.
His solution was to plant more trees, although it did not sound appealing or even realistic to the other leaders. Then, he really had to be creative. Having been exposed to life outside the forest, Chief Almir was no stranger to technology. Googling “reforestation Amazon” led him to “Aqua Verde,” a program that was close enough to what he had in mind. The founder, Thomas Pizer, was paying locals to plant trees. Almir corresponded with him and partnered with the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) to secure a grant for the creation of a cultural map, much like what the organization did for the Xingu Tribe.
The mapping stopped loggers, but it gave them time to chase Almir. A 100,000-dollar bounty was put on his head. Without Almir, loggers knew they could return to cutting down trees to their hearts’ content. He was forced to stay away from his tribe and live elsewhere.
He first used Google Earth in 2007, curious of what their spot in the Amazon would look like. He was surprised to discover that Google had labeled it “uninhabited.” Of course, he couldn’t let the misconception go on. Wearing his feather headdress, he met with Rebecca Moore, manager of Google Earth Outreach. The speech he gave about his tribe’s struggles moved the organization to take action, and they flew to Paiter Surui at Rondônia to see the inhabitants themselves. Since the decimation, Chief Almir has encouraged intermarriages and more children in families to make the tribe grow to 1,300 people.
Apart from correcting Google Earth, Google also educated the tribes on how to use the app to report illegal logging in the area. It was a big step towards modernization for the people who used to be disconnected from the world entirely. Rather than despise being invaded by outsiders, Chief Almir used it to his advantage, and used his publicity to educate many about the real problems of the Amazon. Although it is in Brazil and serves as the home of a tiny population, the rainforest is the source of 20% of the oxygen breathed by the world’s population.
His brave step towards modernization brought the issue of the Amazon’s fading biodiversity to the front pages of important publications. Not only that, Chief Almir also became every tribe’s spokesperson. He gave us a glimpse of what it’s like to be one with nature and what is at stake if we continue to destroy our forests. The 50-year development plan he devised himself has commenced. We can only hope that people won’t turn a deaf ear to their call for help. It’s not only the Amazon and their tribe we are saving if we become more conscious about our use of resources; we are making life possible for many generations to come.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- National Indian Foundation
- Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation
- Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Funbio)
- Amazon Conservation Team
- International Funders for Indigenous Peoples
- Coordination of Nations and Indian Peoples of Rondônia, Southern Amazonas and Northern Mato Grosso
- Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD)
- United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
- Forest Trends
- Association of Ethnic and Environmental Defense or “Kanindé”
- The Institute for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of Amazonas or “Idesam”
- Katoomba Incubator
Awards and Achievements
- 2007: Partnered with Google
- 2009: Named one of Brazil’s 100 most influential persons
- 2011: Ranked the 53rd of the “Most Creative People in Business in the World” by Fast Company Magazine
- 2011: Earned the first “Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Leadership”
- Led one of the first payments for “Carbon Credits” projects on indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon
- Honoured with the Forest Hero Award from the United Nations Forum on Forests
- Elected Chief of his tribe at the age of 17
- Convinced the World Bank to re-structure a regional development program to better benefit local indigenous groups
Forbes (Who is Brazil's Most Creative Person in Business?)
WISE Qatar (Chief Almir Narayamoga SURUI)
Fast Company (Chief Almir)
Reader's Digest (How an Amazon Tribe Used Google to Save Their Land)
The Washington Post (Brazilian chief uses technology to help save his tribe and curb deforestation)
Eye On Earth Summit (Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui)
UN News Centre (FEATURE: Indigenous activist fights to save his tribe and the Amazon rainforest)
The Huffington Post (Arts for Human Rights)
Ecosystem Marketplace (Almir Surui: Perseverance Under Pressure)
Cultural Survival (Forest Fighter)