By Chris Lang
The Suruí Forest Carbon Project was the first REDD project to be developed and run by indigenous people. The Suruí’s Seventh of September territory covers an area of 248,000 hectares on the border of the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso. The chief of the Suruí, Almir Suruí, has been lauded internationally for his role in promoting the project. He’s been called the Gandhi of the Amazon. In 2013, he won a UN Forest Hero Award.
For REDD proponents, this is one of the most important REDD projects. But the project is now facing serious difficulties – from illegal logging, gold and diamond mining. Difficulties that the REDD project has been unable to address.
Almir Suruí became something of a pop star of REDD. He’s travelled to the USA many times, meeting Wall Street financiers, politicians, Googlers, environmental organisations, Bianca Jagger, David Attenborough, and Prince Charles.
In 2013, he told the Washington Post that,
“I think it’s working. I wouldn’t have gone to 33 countries to talk about our culture, our health care, our education and the way things are if it wouldn’t work.”
In 2013, the Suruí project sold 120,000 carbon credits to Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics firm. The following year, FIFA bought carbon credits from the Suruí to “offset” emissions from the World Cup.
The Suruí have received help from a wide range of organisations, including: Forest Trends; Google; the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Funbio); The Institute for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Amazon (IDESAM); The Etnoambiental Kanindé Defense Association; Amazon Conservation Team (ACT-Brasil); The Katoomba Group; software company Rhiza; and Trench, Rossi and Watanabe (an associated firm of Baker & McKenzie).
Ecosystem Marketplace has written about Almir Suruí and the Suruí Forest Carbon Project dozens of times. In 2011, Steve Zwick, Ecosystem Marketplace’s managing director, started working with Almir Suruí on his autobiography.
On his website AnthopoZine, Zwick writes that,
The work was essentially finished by mid-2013, but Almir’s schedule has prevented us from getting together long enough to finish it.
You can read the (still not finished) autobiography here.
Illegal logging, fishing and cattle grazing
There are hints in some of Zwick’s pieces about the Suruí that all was not going entirely according to the REDD plan. In a September 2013 article, for example, Zwick mentioned a logging moratorium that the Suruí implemented voluntarily in 2009:
For three years, the bulk of his people resisted logging, as the tribe subsisted on funding from USAID, NORAD and others. As the years went on, however, the moratorium began to take its toll. A small but vocal minority called for the resumption of logging.
“We’re not a monolithic entity,” Almir says. “Some of our people wanted to move forward with logging, and others were simply desperate.”
“Our rangers have photographed the activities and tagged the photos using GPS technology. They also tracked the loggers to a mill just outside the territory, and now we will present our findings to the local office of FUNAI and other law enforcement agencies. We need them to act on this information.”
Zwick reported Almir as saying that “tribal authorities were also speaking with ‘a small handful’ of Paiter-Suruí who they suspect of colluding with the loggers”.
CIMI’s interview with Henrique Suruí
In September 2014, CIMI, the Indigenous Missionary Council, published an interview with Henrique Suruí in its magazine Porantim.
Henrique Suruí was extremely critical of the REDD project. He said the REDD project did not bring any benefits for the communities. “It only damaged the Suruí way of life,” he said.
REDD-Monitor posted a translation of the interview, along with a response from the Metareilá Association, an organisation set up by Almir Suruí. Zwick called the interview “pro-logging propaganda”. In a comment, he explained that,
Like any society, the Surui are comprised of unique individuals, each with their own views and values. A small minority of them, like Henrique, are in bed with the loggers. They’re kind of like the Surui’s version of the Tea Party or the Koch Brothers, while Almir represents the Greens and Al Gore.
Zwick wrote a response to CIMI’s interview, taking aim at CIMI. His headline was, “Indigenous Leaders Call Foul On Once-Revered Catholic Organization”.
A group of the Suruí, including Henrique, asked for the carbon project to be stopped. They had several concerns, particularly that they had not received the money promised from the project. They denied that Henrique Suruí promoted illegal logging. “We do not support this illegal activity,” they wrote, “yet we understand that our relatives who are acting in that way, do so because they do not have another alternative to obtain an income.”
The Metareilá Association wrote a long response. In it they wrote:
The political debate over REDD + is continuing, and the Suruí people are participating in it, but we will not allow this discussion over our participation or lack thereof in ecosystem services – an issue that is so important for Brazilian indigenous peoples – to begin losing ground in the media because of a deplorable smear campaign.
Almir Suruí’s cry of help to save the forest
The threats to the Suruí’s forests continued. In October 2016, Almir Suruí issued an emergency appeal for help to save the forest. He wrote that,
Every day, 300 trucks leave our territory filled with wood, which represents 600 hectares of deforested forests. And it continues to increase, whilst according to the Constitution of Brazil, it is illegal to deforest an indigenous reservation.
On the ground, the illegal loggers have heavy means, with Caterpillar machines. We have found mercury and cyanide in three rivers of Suruí territory because of the miners!
Rainforest Rescue set up a petition against the destruction, which has been signed by more than 160,000 people.
Last week, Climate Home published an article by Fabiano Maisonnave titled “Forest diamonds: How family rivalry and the Catholic church helped miners devastate an indigenous Amazon territory”. Maisonnave writes that the Suruí’s forest “sits on one of the largest unexplored diamond reserves on earth”. Illegal diamond miners have poured into the area.
Maisonnave follows Zwick’s lead, and puts the blame on CIMI and the Catholic Church:
The destruction of this remote part of the Amazon forest reveals the tactics of a campaign by one of the Brazil’s most powerful institutions, the Catholic Church, that promotes divisions within tribes to bring down carbon credit schemes.
But it wasn’t CIMI, or the Catholic church, that brought down the Suruí Forest Carbon Project. Almir and Henrique’s feud goes back before CIMI interviewed Henrique. And well before the REDD project started.
In 2015, Maisonnave interviewed Henrique Suruí for an article in the Folha de Sao Paulo. Henrique admitted to Maisonnave that he had negotiated with the loggers.
The same article notes that at the time, only 10 out of 25 of the Suruí villages were involved in the REDD project.
A serious problem for the Suruí forests is the fact that there are 70 logging concessions within 80 kilometres of the Suruí’s land. And 306 sawmills. Illegal loggers pay US$60 per cubic metre of timber. The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) admitted to Maisonnave in 2015 that the “situation in the region is out of control”.
The discovery of gold and diamonds under the Suruí’s forests is a disaster for the forests. It’s also bad news for REDD proponents. Putting a price on the carbon stored in the forests, cannot compete with the money to be made from digging out diamonds. While mining is illegal in indigenous territory in Brazil, REDD is incapable of stopping the illegal mining that has already impacted the Suruí’s forests.
Climate Home published police footage showing the destruction:
Almir and Henrique both looking for alternatives
Maisonnave writes that according to Imazon, between August 2016 and July 2017, the Suruí’s forest had the seventh worst deforestation rate among 419 indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon. Almir told him, “We couldn’t generate more carbon credits because the deforestation rate was larger than predicted. We couldn’t control it.”
Almir is now looking for alternatives to carbon. He told Maisonnave that, “Some of us went to Europe and struck deals to export coffee and Brazilian nuts. We will try to survive from sustainable agriculture and handicraft. We will find alternatives.”
Henrique Suruí stands accused of being behind the diamond mining. Maisonnave quotes from a police report about Henrique:
He only thinks and moves in accordance with mining interests. On the day of the raid, the federal police found heavy machinery in the mining area, which was under supervision and leadership of Indians. It is beyond doubt that they belong to the group led by Henrique Suruí.
Henrique told Climate Home that the police accusations were “a big lie”, adding that, “The carbon project is better than mining”. But Maisonnave reports that according to federal police sources, Henrique and two other Suruí, “admitted involvement with illegal mining and struck a deal in order to collaborate in exchange of minor punishment”.
In June 2017, Henrique travelled to Brasília with leaders of the Cinta-Larga group, neighbours of the Suruí, and whose lands cover the same diamond deposit. The Cinta-Larga have seen large scale illegal mining on their land. Henrique and the Cinta-Larga want to be allowed to mine for diamonds on their lands.