Chief Almir Surui
Chief Almir Surui was elected village chief by tribal elders at the young age of 17. As the first member of the Surui people to attend college, he has dedicated his leadership skills to protecting the natural resources of the Amazon and preserving the culture of his people. His accomplishments include successfully lobbying the government to improve medical care and education for Indigenous tribes, steering World Bank funds directly to Indian programs, uniting other chiefs in a ban against logging, and convincing his fellow tribes people that their culture has value. Chief Almir is working with the nonprofit organization Amazon Conservation Team on a massive ethno-mapping project that utilizes modern technologies to document his tribe’s history, traditions and landscape. For his work he has received international recognition. He has also received death threats.
Chief Itabira Surui
Chief Itabira has first hand experience of the tenuous future of his tribe. He is a survivor of contact with the outside world in which 500 of his 700 tribal members died from disease. For 18 years he lived in the modern world with access to an automobile, a washing machine and other conveniences. Inspired to preserve his culture and landscape, he moved from the city of Cacoal and returned to his native homeland. He recognizes the need to understand the changing world in order to protect the future interests of the Surui people. At the same time, Chief Itabira revives traditional rituals that bring the community together and ensure cultural survival.
A tribal elder whose facial tattoos identify her with age-old traditions, Weita is one of the few remaining Surui people who survived first contact. Rooted in ancient traditions, she practices the customary art of spinning and speaks only her native Monde, a language that has no written expression. She relies on her children to translate for her and uses storytelling to pass on her extensive knowledge of forest culture to younger generations. Yet despite nostalgia for her pre-contact past, Weita has not escaped the influences of modern contact. She attends the village church established by Christian missionaries. Weita personifies the challenges faced by numerous tribes throughout the forest whose lives straddle two, very different worlds.
Arildo Surui is part of a new generation coming of age in a rapidly changing world. He has moved 300 miles outside of his tribal village to Porto Vehlo, the capital of Rondonia, where he attends college. He studies biology, with a focus in biodiversity. His goal is to develop sustainable rainforest economies so that his people can survive financially while preserving their surrounding rainforest. Arildo’s western studies are complemented by his attention to traditional customs, and he hopes to be influential in his people’s future. But Arildo struggles with financial difficulties and an emotional longing for both his family, still living in the village, and his Indian language and songs.
Chico Mendes, a union leader and environmental activist with no formal education, began tapping rubber trees when he was eight-years-old. Opposed to the clear-cutting that threatened both his forest home and his livelihood, Chico founded a National Council of rubber tappers and organized nonviolent protests to stop rampant deforestation for pasturelands. He advocated for the creation of “extractive reserves”—vast protected areas where rubber, wild fruits, and medicinal plants could be harvested without damaging the forest, guaranteeing the preservation of both the forest and its people. National environmental organizations sponsored Mendes to champion his cause before the US Senate. His work garnered international support and recognition, including the United Nations Global 500 Award and the Better World Society Prize. But his efforts also inspired the wrath of Brazil’s ranchers. In 1988, Chico was murdered outside his home by a rancher opposed to his activism. Today, over 4% of the Brazilian Amazon has been established as sustainable reserves.