Native Village 
Youth and Education News
May, 2013
Indigenous activist fights to save his tribe and the Amazon rainforest
Condensed by Native Village

Almir Narayamoga Surui receives UN Forest Hero Award from juror Daniel Shaw of the International Union for Conservation of Nature at a ceremony in Istanbul.

Brazil: Almir Narayamoga Surui was born into the Paiter-Surui tribe, an indigenous Amazonian tribe in Rondonia. At the time, his people had very little contact with the world outside the forest.  Almir -- the first Surui member to attend college -- has spent over 20 years fighting to save his tribe and the Amazon rainforest.

Recently, The United Nations Forum on Forests honored him with a Forest Hero Award for working to sustain, protect and manage forests.

“He has brought his tribe back from the brink of extinction through ingenious and courageous environmental and political activism,” said Daniel Shaw from the International Union for Conservation of Nature

Mr. Surui was born in 1974 when the Surui had already been in “contact with white people.” Immediately, his tribe faced problems with economic exploitation and disease.

"My people were reduced from 5,000 people to 295 persons."

"Every time there is development growth, there is also a  population growth and this population growth is made up of non-indigenous people and this impacts our own people. Today, for us, it is a real challenge to protect our forests.”  

Surui said large development brings negative social and environmental consequences.

“Nowadays, forests in the Amazon are located inside indigenous lands. In territories that do not belong to indigenous groups, the forests do no exist anymore,” said Mr.Surui. “This is the reason why it is so difficult for us to keep the forests and that’s why we are looking for and struggling for a national policy whereby we have the support of the population in terms of utilizing everything sustainably that the forest gives to us.”

After being elected Paiter-Surui chief at age 17, Almir successfully:

Lobbied state government to build schools, wells and medical clinics for the Surui and other rainforest tribes.
Spearheaded a 50-year plan for large-scale conservation efforts, reforestation projects, and activities that offer economic alternatives to exploiting the forest.
onvinced the World Bank to re-structure a regional development programme to benefit local indigenous groups.
Convinced Google to help the tribe use digital technology to monitor and map the forest.

“There is tendency in my country to equate development with cutting down trees. This is what we try to combat. We can have development without cutting down the trees,” said Mr. Surui.

In 1992, the UN's Earth Summit recognized indigenous peoples’ rights to forests as a crucial way to preserve the world's environment and solve the environmental crisis. However, the process has been slow.  Indigenous peoples continue lobbying governments for full legal rights and recognition of their traditional lands.

In many countries, indigenous peoples lack legal title to their lands. In other cases, if the tribes do have title, governments can revoke it at any time.  Among the most significant abuses of human rights today are large development projects and the exploitation of natural resources in, or near, indigenous territories.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
Is a framework for indigenous peoples’ rights to forests.
Recognizes their right to be involved in the decision-making process
Recognizes their right to give -- or withhold -- their free, prior and informed consent on activities affecting their lands, territories and livelihoods.

The Surui Tribe's efforts to protect the forests have not been without costs. Last year, the lives of 12 Surui leaders were threatened. Today, 7 leaders are the subjects of threats. They are under the protection of the both the police and Government  human-rights representatives.

Mr Surui said the basic struggle is how to recognize the value of forests and how forests contribute to the continuity of human life.

“My people, the Surui, have a very close relationship with the forest. We are born in the forest; the forest is everything to us. The forest teaches us things, gives us our food and medicines. It supplies materials for our spiritual life. All of these things, the forest offers to us, it is part of our lives,” he said.

With Google Earth technology, the Paiter-Surui tribe can monitor the forests and report illegal logging activity on the edges of its territory.

“It’s a real challenge for us to keep our forest as it once was,” said Mr. Surui.  “I’m not saying that the forests should remain untouched. What I am saying is that forests must be respected, admired and used in a way that enables us to be able to continue having a relationship with them.”


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