There are two sides of “modernity,” Popkin tells us. There’s modernity as destruction, evidenced by the way our great industrial advances have polluted the Earth, produced mass extinctions of animal species, and threatened our own existence. But as a counterpoint, we can also see modernity as hope: namely, the hope that technology will save our asses from this latest crisis, just as it has previously saved us from many types of disease, suffering, and ignorance. For Popkin, this distinction sets the stage for the story of the Paiter Suruí:
In the Amazon rainforest of northwest Brazil, the Paiter Suruí indigenous people had lived without interaction with Europeans until 1969, adapting with the flora and fauna of their forest home for thousands of years. European contact inevitably brought disease, eviscerating the Paiter Suruí population, which dropped from 10,000 to 240. Lumber mills and ranchers moved in. Government policy encouraged economic growth (and return on investment) at all costs.
Facing possible extinction from modernity as destruction, Almir Suruí, the dynamic Paiter Suruí leader, appealed to modernity as hope to save his people’s forest home. In 2007 he convinced the engineers behind Google Earth to create a means for tracking and reporting forest loss. The audacity of the project gave the Paiter Suruí enough notoriety to take the upper hand in the fight, and the tool engaged young members of the tribe in the work of progress. The larger challenge was to permanently protect the rainforest while providing an economic alternative to logging or ranching (and for the young people a reason to stay in the village). Collaborating with various international organizations, Suruí enrolled the rainforest in the United Nations-sponsored REDD+ program, a marketplace for carbon credits. A corporation needing to offset its carbon dioxide emissions would pay the Paiter Suruí to maintain and enhance the rainforest as a carbon sink.
the Paiter Suruí carbon offset credit project became the target of a powerful Catholic Church–backed indigenous group, CIMI, whose leaders attacked the project as commodification of nature. Though they had the same goal to save the rainforest as Almir Suruí, the CIMI activists saw the project squarely as an example of modernity as destruction, the wealthy earning on the backs of the poor.
The project now weakened by heightening protest, a rival leader, Henrique Suruí, accused Almir Suruí of corruption.… Then miners discovered gold and diamonds in the ground beneath the forest. The result was a free-for-all.
On October 13, 2016, Almir Suruí issued a panicked call for help. “This is my cry of alarm, please listen to me!” he wrote to national and international authorities and environmentalists. “We are undergoing a total invasion of deforesters and miners of diamonds and gold.” Each day 300 trucks entered and left the forest filled with lumber, the bounty of nearly 1,500 acres of tropical rainforest. The situation was dire: “Either one collaborates, or they put a gun to our heads!”…
In his cry of alarm, Almir Suruí was trying to seize the world’s attention, to make us act—immediately—while it was still possible to define the exact nature of the crime. The gun is at all our heads, he said. You living in comfort haven’t yet heeded the warning, so let me repeat it. He wrote, “The implications are terrible. In addition to environmental damage (and the challenge to our way of life), these invasions directly endanger our families and our children.”
Did anyone outside of the relatively small community of global environmental activists hear Almir Suruí’s declaration of sacrifice? Though his plea appeared on a few websites, the response was negligible. Indeed, when I search the Internet for any indication Suruí has been heeded, I come up with nothing. To my horror, the invasion goes on—today it continues at a much greater scale under the orders of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a committed political enemy of indigenous people. There seems to be no one in Brazil’s demonstrably corrupt and incompetent government to stop it. The genocide against the forest was the kind of injustice and aggression that had spurred me to action so long ago, inspired by the simple idea that Suruí had so succinctly expressed: my future is the same as yours.
Yet there’s really no us-versus-them here. The truism can’t be stated too often: We’re all in this together. President-elect Biden, it’s time to act on the eco-crisis. Long past time.
#NativeAmerican #IndigenousPeople #globalwarming #ClimateCrisis #ClimateJustice