March 27, 2013

Tech-savvy Surui chief

Brazilian chief uses technology to help save his tribe and curb deforestation

By Juan ForeroAs a small boy in the early ’80s, Almir Surui hunted monkeys with a bow and arrow, wore a loincloth and struggled with Brazil’s official language, Portuguese.

At 38, he is the tech-savvy, ­university-educated chief of the Paiter Surui, or “the real people,” of this western corner of Brazil.

He can still handle a bow. But Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui says his weapon of choice is technology: Android phones to monitor illegal logging, hand-held Global Positioning System devices to map territory and Google Earth Outreach to show the world what a well-managed forest looks like.

Wielding the tools of the 21st century, the 1,300-member tribe has delved into a complex scheme in which governments or companies pay for forest preservation, contributing to a system that, if fully realized, would help end large-scale deforestation. By determining how much carbon is prevented from being released if the trees on Surui lands are left standing, the tribe hopes to sell carbon credits internationally to offset greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries.
From The Stone Age To The Digital Age In One Big Leap

By Juan ForeroRebecca Moore of Google was among the first to come on board, back in 2007. She describes Chief Almir as "very savvy. I've never seen anyone who could say 'no' to him."

She recalled how Chief Almir told Google executives that his father's way of defending the Surui was obsolete.

"He realized that the time had come, he says, to put down the bow and arrow and pick up the laptop, that that was the future for defending their territory and strengthening their tribe," she says. "How could you say 'no'?"

Beto Borges, a Brazilian-born environmentalist who works at Forest Trends based in Washington, D.C., says Chief Almir knows how to get people's attention, whether it's in Rio de Janeiro or New York.

"Walking with the crowds with Almir is like walking with a pop star," says Borges, the company's director of the Communities and Markets Program. "All of a sudden here's an indigenous person from the Amazon. And not only an indigenous person, but he's a chief, wearing this huge headdress with feathers."

But what wins over converts to the Surui cause, says Borges, is Chief Almir's ability to lay out a cogent argument and persuade.

"All of a sudden, they're facing an indigenous person who can speak at the same level that they can, who can talk about strategic vision, for the companies as well as for his people," says Borges. He says it often leaves listeners astonished.

"I think that really shocks people to the point that they fall in love with him," Borges says. "'Oh, this guy is fantastic, so we want to do something with him.'"
Comment:  These stories alone are enough to explode the myth of Amazon Indians as primitive, spear-chucking savages. It's the 21st century and these people are part of it.

For more on the Amazon Indians, see Chagnon Autobiography Reignites Controversies and Cannibal Indians in Green Inferno.

Below:  "To save the forest home of his people, Chief Almir Surui has turned to modern technology, like Android phones, and alliances with the likes of Google and Wall Street financiers." (Juan Forero/TWP)

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