In 2007, Almir Narayamoga Suruí travelled from his home in the Brazilian rainforest to the USA. He met Beto Borges of Forest Trends. Borges told Almir that he could earn money by planting trees, protecting forests and selling carbon credits. The Paiter-Suruí REDD project was conceived.
Six years later the first carbon credits were sold. The project has featured several times on Ecosystem Marketplace (published by Forest Trends) as an example of a successful indigenous-led REDD project.
Beto Borges wrote a college paper “on Suruí efforts to develop a sustainable agriculture program”. Steve Zwick, the Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, is working with Almir on his autobiography.
UPDATE – 30 December 2014: Steve Zwick has written a response to CIMI’s interview with Henrique Suruí: “Indigenous Leaders Call Foul On Once-Revered Catholic Organization”.
This post previously stated that Borges wrote his masters thesis on “Suruí efforts to develop a sustainable agriculture program”. In fact it was a college paper – see this article on Ecosystem Marketplace and Steve Zwick’s comment below.
In September 2014, CIMI, the Indigenous Missionary Council, published an interview with Henrique Suruí in its magazine Porantim. In the interview Henrique is extremely critical of the Paiter-Suruí REDD project.
Here is an unofficial translation of the interview with Henrique Suruí. You can read the original version in Portuguese on CIMI’s website, and the full issue of Porantim (also in Portuguese) can be downloaded here.
Following that is a response posted on the Metareila Association’s Facebook page. (This is a google translation – if any Portuguese speakers can improve on the translation, please let me know in the comments.) The Metareila Association is an organisation established by Almir Suruí to act “as a conduit between the Suruí and the larger world”, according to Ecosytem Marketplace.
“What are projects for that destroy life?”
In September 2013, photos of the Paiter-Suruí peoples were widely published in the press and in social networks in Brazil and abroad. This was in relation to a contract that the indigenous peoples signed with Brazil’s largest cosmetics company, Natura, and through which the company bought the first 120 tons of carbon credits “sequestered” on the indigenous territories of Sete de Setembro, from 2009 to 2012. The company was the first in the world to acquire ‘indigenous’ carbon credits; the credits had been issued by two international certification companies.
Despite all the euphoria that accompanied the announcement of the contract, the chief of the village Sete de Setembro, Henrique Iabaday Suruí, 50-years-old, father of nine children, says that currently, one year after the signing of this contract, “100% of the community is against this project.” According to Henrique Iabaday Suruí the Suruí did not understand very well what the project was about and have been deceived with false promises of a better life.
In this exclusive interview with Porantim, Henrique says that since 2007, when the “50 year Management Plan of the Paiter-Suruí People” began, community life has changed radically, with restrictions on hunting, fishing, practising shifting cultivation and producing crafts. Being left without autonomy in their own territory led to division among the Suruí peoples, who “are without life”. He announces that the community wants the project to be halted, a project which is centered around one single person, so the community can return to live as before and “return to be warriors.”
Interview by Patricia Bonilha, communications advisor at CIMI.
Porantim: Tell us about the reality of the Paiter-Suruí peoples today.
Henrique Suruí: We are currently about 1,800 people living in 25 villages. Each village has a chief. The indigenous territory Sete de Setembro – an area of 248,000 hectares – was demarcated and registration of the land as indigenous territory legally recognised (homologada) in the late 1970s; half the territory is in the state of Rondônia and half in Mato Grosso. About 30% of the Suruí people only speak the Tupi language, and many who understand Portuguese speak this language with much difficulty.
Porantim: Regarding the Suruí Forest Carbon Project, how many villages participated in this project?
Henrique Suruí: When they started the discussion about the carbon project in 2007, twenty villages began to participate, the other five were not involved. I warned some of the leaders that the project would not be good in future for the Suruí.
Porantim: What was the process of construction of the project like? Did the community participate? Was there extensive consultation?
Henrique Suruí: It was neither NGOs [non-governmental organizations], nor Natura, which came in now, when they negotiated and bought some of the [carbon] sequestered [by the forests] who initiated the project. Who brought the project into the communities was Almir Surui, with the support of the [organization] Kanindé. There are other organizations involved, but the details I do not remember because I never attended the discussions because I have always been opposed to the project. When they began to discuss the carbon project, he said that having carbon project would improve the quality of life for our people, “Suruí people will become entrepreneurs, there will be a market, a shop, a petrol station.” They said there would be a market within the indigenous territory. That each [person] would have money transferred into their account, individually. And the Suruí people wanted a better quality [of life], and thus accepted the proposal. I said that the project was not going to be good for the Suruí peoples.
Porantim: Why did you think that?
Henrique Suruí: Because when they started, I sought to understand how this [funding] would be passed on to the Suruí peoples. They said that it would be donated and one day, I discovered through friends and support groups that one day we would lose [access to] the territory because the funding would take away our right to live on the land. The organisations [involved in the project] began having meetings with the community and made a lot of promises, offered many things and people liked it too much. They said that funds would be deposited to individual bank accounts and that the lives of every person would improve. This created a huge expectation and after that a great deception when the expectation did not come true, among my people.
Porantim: Do you think the indigenous peoples did in fact understand what participating in a project like this would mean?
Henrique Suruí: First, there was no proper understanding of what it would mean. The thinking was focused mainly on the money. They did not think about what the project could bring in the future and that this could harm the Suruí people. The promise was very beautiful. To this day most of the Surui people still do not really understand what REDD actually entails [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation]. Few leaders understand.
Porantim: And the communities were consulted?
Henrique Suruí: They never asked if we want to participate, if the Suruí people want to participate. They even said to the Suruí [who were attending the meetings], “We have this project and you have to accept this project.” The question if the project was good or not for the Suruí was never asked. They said: “This project is good and can improve the lives of the Suruí“. That is what they said.
Porantim: And who signed on to the project?
Henrique Suruí: After the “50 year Management Plan of the Paiter-Suruí People” was presented international companies wanted to buy the carbon sequestered. This plan only served to say that the Suruí authorized the purchase of carbon from their land and to facilitate the persons concerned. People expected to sign a project, but already that would impede the traditional life of the Suruí people.
They prevent the practise of cultural plantations and production of traditional crafts, of traditional fishing, hunting, freedom on our own land ended. In addition, we are now in the hands of the Federal Police who threatened us for anything from taking trees for our own needs to hunting on our own land … who was caught, would be convicted for it. The freedom the Suruí had on our land has been taken away. The Federal Police acted on pressure of those responsible for the [REDD] project. They asked that the relevant authorities act, to show to the world that the Surui could fulfil an agreement.
Porantim: Talk a little more about the life in the communities before this carbon project began.
Henrique Suruí: Our life was traditional. Our people had freedom and were in good health, without disease. In our life today, diseases are very present, we are losing our elders, people suffer from depression. Many Suruí elders are depressed. Today, the Suruí people can’t believe what happened to them. No one knows what happened to the money. Money is being spent and carbon money is being used to buy leaders of the Arara, Zoró, Hawk and Tupari [peoples] to convince them to also become involved in carbon projects. When the contract was signed with Natura, the Suruí thought that these funds would help improve the lives of the people because they waited many years for this project. People became depressed and were left without authority to do what they did before. There was a very great divide between us. Thus, our lives today are very difficult. We do not trust anyone any more. Our people do not believe what happened to us. Suruí people are scared. No-one to talk to about what happened to the Suruí. People feel lifeless. We want the project to be abolished so we can regain the life we had before. Back to being warriors.
Porantim: Did the project result in any benefit to the communities?
Henrique Suruí: Nothing, nothing, nothing. It only damaged the Suruí way of life. Life just ended, there is not much left. No more projects like before. It’s over. Before, we had a project with [the state institution for indigenous affairs] Funai, our association within the community, but that no longer exists. Now they [the REDD project] run everything and have a grip on everything. No conversation with anyone. They pick a fight when someone asks about the money. All who were next to those in charge of the project, have left. They are alone.
Porantim: It was noted in the press that the value of the contract with Natura amounts to BRL 1,2 million (ca. US$500,000). Do you know if this figure is correct?
Henrique Suruí: Yes, that is correct, but no-one knows where this money went. And the community did not receive any benefit.
Porantim: What is the situation today? Those who initially supported the project, did they change their position?
Henrique Suruí: Today, 100% of the community is opposed to the project. No-one among the Suruí wants to talk any more about this project. All remained centralized in one single person. Natura only deals with one person. Not even Natura know what is actually happening with the Suruí. No-one knows. We have said nothing until now. This is the first time that we are talking about the reality of the Suruí people today.
Porantim: What did the operations of the Federal Police involve?
Henrique Suruí: The Federal Police arrives, they enter the village and check if the Indians are complying with the rules of the project. If not, people can be penalized. They monitor activities within the village and people are and feel threatened by the police. Things have started to calm down a little. But the project is hurting the Suruí people. Now the MPF [federal prosecutors] and the Federal Police are beginning to understand that the project is not good for the Suruí.
Porantim: What is the purpose of conducting a socioeconomic and ecological diagnosis on indigenous territories [across the state]? Who is responsible for this work?
Henrique Suruí: The NGO Kanindé and others. To carry out other REDD projects in other indigenous territories, to expand it to the whole of the state.
Porantim: Are there other indigenous peoples who are involved in the carbon market in Rondônia? What is the position of the government?
Henrique Suruí: Projects are being prepared. The state government is in favour of such projects. Almir is receiving support from the state.
Porantim: Given the context you describe, what do the Suruí people want to do?
Henrique Suruí: First, we began to meet last month. We know that this project has divided our people and almost ended our life as a people. But we understand that our peoples are forever and that we have to win, despite all this. Then, we should never again think of carbon on our land, and especially no NGOs should do a project in the name of the Suruí people. We will fight for our health, education, our culture. We will. We believe that despite the difficult situation we live in today, we will win. Thinking the future of the Suruí peoples. Fighting for our rights. This project of promises that came from the outside gives us no future. Let’s go back to being Suruí again. Today it is very difficult to say that we are united. The project has brought a great divide. It will be a great challenge for a new leadership that can organize the Suruí peoples again, to return to being Suruí. Suruí people lost confidence in leadership with this deceptive project that deceived people. It’s difficult. Elders cannot believe what happened and are depressed. And many people who were responsible, who believed in the project, do not want to talk to anyone. They have lost belief in anything else. Even I continue to find it hard to believe what happened.
Porantim: Today, how would you define the carbon market?
Henrique Suruí; The carbon project on our land is taking the life out of the Suruí people. It is taking away happiness of life, the right to live on the land. If you are happy today and then see the destruction of our life happening, that is difficult. It’s like a bomb on the life of every human being. What’s going on with our people is not easy. What has happened to the Suruí peoples is a story that will remain with us for the rest of our life and for the world … so that no other indigenous peoples take on this type of project on their land, because the land gives life, the forest gives life, for us to plant and gather & harvest. I hope that no other peoples accept such a project. Why would one want projects that destroy life?
Associação Metareilá do Povo Indigena Paiter Suruí
12 December 2014
NOTE OF CONDEMNATION
When a newspaper of the Indigenous Missionary Council attacked an indigenous project with serious accusations of misuse of money, purchasing leaders, Federal Police coercion, transfer of territory and preventing the exercise of traditional activities, it is necessary to react.
The Metareilá Association of the Suruí Indigenous People, one of the nine local associations that together represent all of the 1,300 members of our people, announces that is sending a formal representation to the Ethics Committee and Investigation of the Union of Journalists of the DF against Patricia Bonilha and the vehicle “Porantim,” for which she is responsible.
This is the first reaction of our Association to the deplorable attacks carried by this newspaper in its latest Special Edition, released this week. In an interview signed by that professional, the newspaper – which is published by CIMI, the Indigenous Missionary Council, linked to CNBB, the Catholic Church – in a worrying breach of journalistic ethics, ran a frightening series of lies about the life of the Suruí-Paiter Indians living on their territory, as well as the operation of the Suruí Forest Carbon Project, one of the projects carried out by our indigenous people since 2009.
We know that the CIMI has deep ideological divergence from environmental compensation projects and we are able to respect the debate on this subject, and even participate in it. However, we hoped that the members of this body could make a difference between discussing an environmental issue and conducting a frank smear campaign against the name and the reputation of an entire indigenous people.
The interview says that the Suruí are forbidden to hunt, fish and produce handicrafts in its territory; there are federal police operations within the Indian territory coercing Indians in their villages; there is embezzlement; there are payments to indigenous leaders from other ethnic groups so that they will join new projects; that the project will lead to the loss of future indigenous Suruí-Paiter rights over its fully demarcated and approved land.
Enough to scare the ingenuity, the disengagement and the temerity to journalistic professionals who think they can publish statements of such gravity without taking the proper professional precautions, without asking the source what would be the evidence of these charges, and without taking efforts to verify whether there was any evidence that would support (and to guarantee the professional a minimum of security for what they publish).
The Metareilá Association is the entity proposing the Suruí Forest Carbon Project, in alliance with seven of the nine Suruí associations. Disagreements about the project are faced with dialogue, conflict management and effective negotiations between the different views taken by Suruí internally. Anything that debate will be helped by a smear campaign of an alien organization that gives voice, in its pamphlet vehicle, the outpourings of a leader far away from this challenging process of consensus building, such as the chief Henrique Iabaday Suruí. And certainly, the lies, indiscretions and false witness will not contribute anything to the autonomy and the role of our indigenous people.
For now, we invite professionals responsible for the Indigenous Missionary Council’s journalistic publication to come to the indigenous land Sete de Septembro to learn the variety of views that different families and clans of Suruí entertain about our Forest Carbon Project. Let them behave like the many visitors we receive; let them behave like the team of independent auditors, for about a month, travelled across the land collecting impressions, success stories, problems, criticism or testimonials of satisfaction and other evidence of a complex reality, from village to village. They will primarily meet the committed and transparent work of Metareilá Association to bring out successfully Forest Carbon Project Suruí and its fair and equitable distribution of resources.
It is very disappointing to our leader Suruí Paiter that, in this era of constitutional amendments such as PEC215 and other aggressive attacks on indigenous rights and the dignity of the Indians, an attack of the Indigenous Missionary Council to add to the ruralistas attacks and anti-Indians already received.
We cannot accept the use of lies and manipulation to undermine the name of the Suruí people and their efforts to good life. We ask all who observe the unfolding of this episode, and we count on the enthusiastic support of our partners and friends, and all those involved with the causes of Amazon and the airing of truth, the wide dissemination of the incident and our next answers to come.