T HE INDIGENOUS territory Sete de Setembro draws its name from the “first contact” with the Paiter Suruí tribe: September 7th 1969. At the time, tribe members thought white men, with their pale skin and strange beards, were a sort of monster, whereas the indigenous were “real people”, or paiterey in their tongue.
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Cousins Almir and Henrique Suruí were born in the following decade. As boys they saw the arrival of thousands of settlers, the conversion of tracts of forest to farmland and the death of hundreds of Suruí from disease and violence. As men they became caciques. But their paths diverged in the mid-2000s. Almir tried to protect the forest and find a sustainable income for his village, Lapetanha, home to 115 of the tribe’s 1,500 members. Henrique got involved in illegal logging and mining, which led to his expulsion. He founded a village elsewhere in the territory, which spans nearly a thousand square miles in Rondônia and Mato Grosso.
Such rivalries reflect a double failure on the part of the government: to keep invaders off indigenous lands and to reduce the poverty driving people in the Amazon into illicit activities. Since 1969 the region’s population has quadrupled to nearly 25m. It comprises 60% of Brazil’s territory and 13% of its population but just 8% of GDP. The area richest in biodiversity and natural resources is among the least developed and most destitute.
The consensus is that environmental enforcement must go hand-in-hand with sustainable development. What that looks like is debated. Last year Mr Bolsonaro submitted a bill to legalise mining on indigenous land. “Every day the Indian is more of a human being,” he said. Many suspect the Indians are not his chief concern. His vision of big projects like highways and dams to serve farms and cities does not include them. His father was a miner. He has said it is “abusive” to non-indigenous Brazilians that less than 1% of Brazil’s population occupies 14% of its territory.
Polls find most Brazilians opposed to mining on indigenous land because it uproots trees, pollutes rivers and leaves huge pits behind. Their land needs more protection if it is to remain pristine. Satellite images of Rondônia show farmland dotted with dirt roads and tiny towns. The only remaining big patches of forest are indigenous territories. This makes tribes natural supporters of a “bioeconomy” that will save the forest and reduce poverty, say environmentalists. In 1997 Philip Fearnside, a Manaus-based biologist, wrote that “The mother lode waiting to be tapped is not a material commodity, but rather the forest’s environmental services.” Yet society has to work out how to pay people for protecting biodiversity, carbon storage and water cycles.
The problem is that, ever since the rubber boom in the late 1800s, wealth and employment in the region have come from extraction: logging, mining, farming. In the 1970s the military regime built thousands of kilometres of roads through the rainforest for these activities. Colonisation programmes lured more than 100,000 families to states like Rondônia with the promise of “land without men for men without land”. To gain a deed to a plot of jungle they had to deforest half. As with the “manifest destiny” that drew Americans west, there was no mention of tribes already living on the land. Many were massacred or driven out.
Brazil’s constitution of 1988 tried to put some of this right. It strengthened laws to protect the environment, laid out steps to demarcate hundreds of indigenous territories and boosted Funai, the agency responsible for them. It left open the possibility of extractive activities on indigenous land, so long as Congress passed laws regulating them and local communities were consulted and paid. Mr Bolsonaro says they will be if his bill passes, but his government has not sought their input.
In the 1980s Funai introduced logging as a source of income for the Suruí, but it was banned after it went out of control. The protectionism of later governments was also unhelpful. Rules making it hard for indigenous people to sell produce from their land to businesses outside the Amazon “made it impossible for them to develop,” says Ivaneide Cardozo of Kanindé, an NGO in Rondônia. In 2000 Almir wrote a 50-year plan with goals for health and education and ideas for how to pay for them. “We’re in the process of understanding what money means for us,” he says.
The road to Sete de Setembro weaves through rocky pastures filled with humped cattle. A wall of trees marks the entrance to the territory. Inside, the forest canopy blocks the sun and the air fills with bird sounds. Lapetanha has a maloca, where elders meet under a thatched-palm roof, along with a Wi-Fi tower. In 2013 the Suruí became the first indigenous group in the world to sell carbon credits under the UN’s anti-deforestation scheme ( REDD+). Natura, a cosmetics company, bought 120,000. So did FIFA before the World Cup. The tribe received around 3m reais to protect trees, and used it for projects such as a coffee co-operative.
But some tribe members claimed the money was not distributed fairly. Henrique claims Almir took too much. The scheme could have won more funding but, with help from an NGO tied to the Catholic church, which has criticised carbon credits, Henrique sabotaged it. During an audit to vet his claims, loggers returned. The project was decertified. REDD+ projects are now popping up throughout the Amazon in hopes of a global carbon market, but the Suruí case suggests that it may not be a straightforward success. And rich countries may prefer to buy credits at home. “Sending money to Brazil to stop deforestation doesn’t do anything for the German economy,” Mr Fearnside says.
The co-operative did better. Brazil’s largest coffee firm, Três Corações, agreed to buy each harvest for 450 reais a sack (the co-op takes 20%). Each Suruí family sells 30–40 sacks, depending on its plot and how many kids it has to pick berries. It is a lot of work for an income less than minimum wage. But the Amazon lacks initiatives for more lucrative economies, like pharmaceuticals or cosmetics, says Denis Minev, who runs its largest department-store chain. He points out that the government invested billions to help Petrobras develop pre-salt technology, and the Embrapa agricultural-research institute to grow soy in the cerrado. The annual budget for the top research institute in the Amazon is 35m reais, less than the footballer Neymar earns in a month.
Francisco Costa, an economist, says that 700,000 people still make a living from the forest, a sizeable group but one with an uncertain future. They are responsible for less than 5% of deforestation; most comes from soy and cattle farms, which are expanding (mining causes degradation, a precursor). Farmers make more money from the growing market for beef and soy in Asia, while Amazonians in sustainable trades like fishing or harvesting açaí have seen their incomes stagnate. It is no wonder that some are turning to illegal economic activities.
Before diamonds were discovered on Suruí land, they were mined on a nearby reserve occupied by the Cinta Larga tribe. Garimpo (wildcat mining) brought wealth but also alcoholism, prostitution and debt. In 2004 the Cinta Larga killed 29 garimpeiros. Prospectors fled to other areas; mineral veins led them to Sete de Setembro. Almir forbade the Suruí from mining but Henrique gave them his blessing: “If the forest is going to be cut down, at least let it be by Indians.”
According to a verbal agreement, 20% of profits are meant to go to the tribe, yet miners rarely keep their word. Henrique was once jailed for mining but he has been to the police countless times to report that Suruí are being exploited. At a hearing in 2015, he accused prosecutors and Funai of being complicit. “You’re in the hands of the miners and I’m the one who’s the thief?” he said. Three or four times a year, police descend on the mines, arrest the miners and set fire to their machines, which can cost 500,000 reais. But the garimpeiros always return. Some 200 are in Sete de Setembro even now, says an investigator. Fines are low, “So it’s always worth it to try again. Coffee, Brazil nuts? Nothing is capable of competing with diamonds.”
Burn, baby, burn
Mr Bolsonaro has squelched any initiatives that tried. In 2019 the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, launched a crusade against the Amazon Fund, through which Germany and Norway donated $1.2bn to projects that employ locals to protect the forest. Mr Salles accused NGO s of committing fraud, even though most of the money went to the ministry. He abolished two committees that oversaw funding and suggested using it to pay squatters who were kicked off conservation units. In the face of rising deforestation and fires, Germany and Norway withdrew their donations.
In a secret meeting in April 2020, video of which was released by the supreme court, Mr Salles urged cabinet members to “push through all kinds of deregulation” while the press was distracted by covid-19. A day after telling President Joe Biden and other leaders at this year’s Earth Day summit that Brazil would double spending on environmental enforcement, Mr Bolsonaro signed a budget that cut it by 24%. When a police superintendent accused Mr Salles of obstructing a probe into illegal logging, he was fired. Brazil will have no problem meeting its goal of ending illegal deforestation by 2030, the former chief tweeted, “Because there will be no forest left.” Mr Salles is under investigation for corruption.
As the risk goes down, the reward goes up. The price of gold has soared by 40% since 2018, to more than $1,700 per ounce. This has drawn tens of thousands of hopefuls to wildcat mines. A gold rush in Pará has split the Munduruku tribe and led to violence. Near the border with Venezuela, where the Yanomami tribe lives in isolation, 21 of its members died of covid-19, including six babies. The virus was brought in by garimpeiros. Instituto Escolhas, another NGO, says lack of regulation makes garimpo far too easy. To sell gold to a bank, Brazilians need only fill out a form. The institute estimates that a third of the roughly 100 tonnes of gold mined in Brazil each year comes from garimpo. Most is illegal.
Over 3,000 petitions have been filed to mine on indigenous land. Mr Bolsonaro’s government has approved 58, even though the law does not allow it.The permits mostly belong to big companies like Anglo American, though garimpeiros believe it is a matter of time before their trade is condoned. “We’re workers, not bums,” says Alison Oliveira, owner of one of more than 1,000 illegal barges that mine gold on the Madeira river outside Porto Velho, Rondônia’s capital. By night they dredge sand from the riverbed; by day, they sift through it with mercury, which sticks to gold. On a good week, the flecks add up to an ounce or two.
In January Rondônia passed a decree overturning a ban on garimpo in rivers. Few barges have submitted papers to operate legally (it is easier to bribe the marine force), but they see the decree as a step towards access to conservation areas where mining remains illegal. Porto Velho’s economy depends on gold, says Mr Oliveira. That politicians own barges is an open secret. He insists that miners have become more green-conscious: they now throw their rubbish away in town. Sand tainted with mercury goes back into the river, though. When this correspondent visited, his workers were dumping it as dolphins played near the barge.
Henrique Suruí scrolls through photos on his phone of chemical-filled craters and laments that young Suruí women want to marry only white miners. He feels sick when he thinks about how little the tribe has benefited from garimpo. “Bolsonaro is right when he says indigenous people need to evolve,” he says. Almir agrees. The death of both their mothers from covid-19 has reunited the cousins. They are talking of joining forces to kick out the miners and launch a new carbon-credit project. Henrique wants to find investors for a mine in which more profits would go to indigenous people. Almir is sceptical but doesn’t rule it out. “Of course we want development,” he says. “Just not at any cost.” ■
This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline “Money trees”
Originally published at https://www.economist.com on June 3, 2021.