In the Amazon rainforest, this tribe may just save the whole world

The Surui in Brazil are fending off illegal ranchers, gold miners and loggers. Their weapons: boots on the ground, satellite images and smartphones.
James Martin/CNET

"Die if necessary, but never kill." - Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon


Flying over Brazil's state of Rondônia, all you see is a blackish-green mass of Amazon rainforest punctuated by oblong plots of dried brown earth. These plots don't look like US farmland with geometric circles and squares. Instead, they're a haphazard jumble of misshapen blotches. A thin brown river slicing through the tangle of trees will eventually wind its way thousands of miles across the continent. 

People don't just pick up and go to Rondônia. Yet here I am with photographer James Martin, on a plane that's circling down to a small outpost in the middle of one of the world's most isolated and threatened places. We roll onto a landing strip no longer than a couple of city blocks, flanked by yellowed grass.

"Bem-vindos a Cacoal," the flight attendant announces.

I'm here to meet Almir Narayamoga Surui. He's chief of one of the four clans of the Paiter-Surui tribe, which means "the True People, we ourselves" in the local language. The Surui may be the Amazon's most technically proficient indigenous group, and Almir may be among the Amazon's most tech-savvy leaders. He's forged a first-of-its-kind partnership with Google Earth to get regular satellite images on illegal deforestation, and has created maps from geographic information systems (GIS) to track high-risk zones. Almir's also managing smartphone data projects with tribe members to make sure they don't overhunt.

That work is crucial to the survival of the rainforest and the people who live here.

It's a remarkable transformation since the Surui first contacted the outside world in 1969, when deforestation, cattle ranching and clashes with settlers and rival tribes forced them to emerge from the forest.

rainforest-roadtrip-6591

A young Surui girl watches YouTube videos on a smartphone. 

James Martin/CNET

That contact almost cost them their existence. New exposure to diseases, like tuberculosis, measles and influenza, decimated the Surui: Their population dropped from 5,000 members to fewer than 300 members in the 1970s.

While the Surui have lived in this corner of the Amazon long before it became part of Brazil, the government didn't officially grant them their own territory until 1983. It's called the Seventh of September, named for that first day of contact.

The Seventh of September is nearly 1,000 square miles and is one of the few remaining forested areas in the region. The jungle here was cut down at the rate of one football field per minute throughout the 1980s. Eleven percent of Rondônia's forest vanished in that 10-year span. Today, it's the most deforested state in Brazil's Amazon.

Almir's goal now is to ensure the Seventh of September stays intact. But there are forces actively working against him.

"The Seventh of September has been invaded by gold miners, loggers and farmers," Almir says. "Inside the territory, it's so much deforestation. And for us, this is very dangerous."

Almir became chief in 1992 when he was 18. He's stocky and has thick black hair and the wide facial features typical of the Surui -- with warm, brown eyes and a broad nose. He usually opts for jeans and a T-shirt, along with traditional beaded necklaces. He says he'll take me to the Seventh of September to show me what he's doing and what the Surui are up against.

Almir's work has a sense of urgency that goes beyond defending the Seventh of September or even Rondônia. The entire globe depends on the Amazon. The world's largest rainforest produces more than 20 percent of our oxygen and captures about 2.2 billion tons of the Earth's carbon dioxide per year. That's equal to what's emitted from almost 430 million cars driven yearly.

The Amazon also has a major role in regulating the climate. If the rainforest were to disappear, global temperatures would soar and rainfall patterns would go haywire, according to University of Virginia research scientists. Hawaii would become submerged. Drought would set in across the US Midwest. The impact would touch everything from agriculture to drinking water. It could also happen sooner than later now that Brazil has elected Jair Bolsonaro president. Bolsonaro has promised to roll back rainforest protections, eliminate Brazil's environmental ministry and open indigenous lands to logging and mining. 

"The threat is as urgent as ever," says Brian Hettler, new technologies manager for Amazon Conservation Team, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve tropical forests and local cultures. "Losing the carbon dioxide processing of the Amazon rainforest and other tropical forests [would] accelerate climate change and lead to a whole chain reaction of negative environmental consequences."

Almir, James and I set out from Cacoal in his gray Mitsubishi 4x4 pickup with windows tinted so dark nobody can see inside. Everybody here drives the same truck. We start off heading east on a small two-lane highway and then turn north onto a dirt road.

For miles, the landscape is nothing but fenced off dried-out farmland with the occasional banana, mango or palm tree. Skinny white cows with bulging ribs gather around muddy watering holes. Brightly colored roadside cement huts, topped with satellite dishes, sell chips and Coca-Cola.

I realize we're driving through one of those brown oblong plots of land I saw from the air.

We bump and bounce along the dirt road for nearly an hour. A darkness looms in the distance. As we get closer, I see it's a dense wall of rainforest towering nearly 200 feet high. Massive ficus and lupuna trees, strangled with vines and fighting for sunlight, reach to the top of the canopy.

"This is the edge of the territory," Almir says, drawing an invisible horizontal line with his finger.

rainforest-roadtrip-6936

Almir Narayamoga Surui, wearing a crown made of bird feathers to signify his role as a chief of the Paiter-Surui tribe, stands in the middle of his home village, Lapetanha. 

James Martin/CNET

As we enter the Seventh of September, the farmland immediately shrinks away and the dry air becomes humid. The dirt road's tan dust turns a dark brick red.

After about 2 miles, the forest opens up to reveal a village of roughly 75 people, surrounded by tangerine, banana, coffee and cacao orchards. This is Lapetanha, Almir's hometown. Chickens run wild among wood-plank and cement-block houses. There's electricity, running water, a health clinic and school. But the predominant structure is a 12-story steel tower bringing Wi-Fi to connect the villagers to the outside world.

Almir introduces me to Rone Mopidmore Surui, who helps monitor hunting in the Seventh of September. The Surui still mostly hunt with bows and arrows. But they also use smartphones to track the number and kinds of animals they kill — primarily wild pigs, armadillos, birds and monkeys. The tribe started this program in 2010 to ensure they hunt sustainably.  

"If you don't hunt these animals, they can become pests. They eat a lot of fruit," Rone says. "You have to hunt not too much and not too little to keep them in control."

Every month Rone and about 20 other workers interview tribe members to learn what they've hunted. They gather data on the animal's age, sex and weight, as well as how the animal was killed. The workers also find out whether the animal was hunted for food, artisan supplies or medicine. If the animal was killed recently, they take a photo. Rone and the others add this data into an app on their phones. Then it's compiled and crunched to get the bigger picture of animal life in the territory.

rainforest-roadtrip-7923

A stack of what appear to be illegally harvested trees in a remote part of Brazil's state of Mato Grosso. 

James Martin/CNET

As night falls in Lapetanha, Rone joins Almir and other neighbors in the center of the village. They slap mosquitoes and swap stories in their native Tupi-Monde language. One woman sits on a thatch mat weaving baskets from palm fronds. A young boy watches Batman YouTube videos on a smartphone.

Almir takes out his own smartphone and pulls up Google Earth. He zooms in on the Seventh of September, then pinches, grabs and magnifies a zone at the top of the territory. It doesn't look like much, just a small brown lump with a couple of tractors. He explains that it's an illegal gold mine.

"Can we go there?" I ask.

"You can only see the images," he says. "To go there is dangerous."

But, he tells me, we'll go on patrol and spend the night in the forest near there in a few days.

An outspoken activist, Almir, 44, has spent decades rallying the Brazilian government and international organizations to bring attention to deforestation. He met with President Bill Clinton in 2011 and is on a first-name basis with Al Gore, Prince Charles, Jane Goodall and Bianca Jagger. He was the first member of the Surui to go college, earning a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Goiânia in 1995.

In 2003, while working in an internet cafe, Almir stumbled on Google Earth. He looked up Rondônia in the satellite mapping engine and zoomed in on the Seventh of September. What he saw shocked him. The small green zone that was the Surui territory was surrounded by stark deforestation. Even more disturbing, he saw areas inside the Seventh of September that he didn't know had been logged.

That's when he realized Google Earth could be an important tool in helping the Surui protect their land.

Four years later, Almir traveled more than 5,000 miles to meet Rebecca Moore, head of Google Earth, and her team at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

"He didn't come to ask for help. He came to propose a partnership," Moore says. "He said, 'you know about technology, we know about the forest.'"

Almir told Moore that Google Earth had a lot of information about the world's cities — streets, hospitals, restaurants and movie theaters — but there was nothing about indigenous territories.

"What he was articulating was not an isolated issue for the Surui. It was true of all the indigenous people of the Amazon," Moore says. "We needed to do a better job with getting them on the map."

rainforest-roadtrip-7384

Because of illegal logging and mining, once-lush rainforest now looks like this. 

James Martin/CNET

Almir now gets updated satellite images of the Seventh of September every month and has trained the Surui to use mapping tools. The company also added detailed information about the Surui's land, culture and history to Google Earth. Users can, for example, zoom in on the region to view photos of the jenipapo tree — which produces the ink the Surui use to paint their skin — and see where wild jaguars roam.

Google Earth also now works with 57 tribes and traditional communities across the Amazon and more than 1,000 other indigenous community members around the world. And it's integrated all of Brazil's 472 indigenous territories into Google Maps.

Almir's efforts to end illegal logging and mining, and preserve native cultures have made him a target. In 2007, loggers offered $100,000 to have him murdered, forcing him to leave the area for a couple of months. Other threats made Almir leave home again in 2011. The threats continue.

Assassinations over land conflicts are common in the Amazon. The 1988 murder of environmentalist Chico Mendes in Rondônia's neighboring state of Acre may be the most famous, but it was far from the last, says watchdog organization Pastoral Land Commission. Last year alone, 70 people were murdered over land conflicts in Brazil, up from 61 in 2016.

"It's a time of peril for many cultures in the Amazon," Moore says. "These are the people defending the rainforest, which are the lungs of the planet for all of us. We all have a stake in helping them defend and preserve their cultures and their land."

The Seventh of September has 27 villages, most of them clustered in the southwestern edge of the territory that's in Rondônia. Where we're going on patrol is more than 100 miles from Lapetanha, in part of the territory that's in the state of Mato Grosso. There are no villages or nearby towns — only forest and one dirt road.

rainforest-roadtrip-6955

A Surui woman in Lapetanha weaves baskets from palm fronds.

James Martin/CNET

To get there, we start out on Brazil's highway 364, which runs along the southern part of the Amazon from the Peruvian border to the coastal state of São Paulo. Construction on the interstate began in 1961 as part of a government initiative to bring settlers and economic development to the Amazon basin. By 1980, half a million people had moved to the region. But with them came immense deforestation and displacement of native communities.

Before highway 364, almost all of Rondônia and Mato Grosso were carpeted in rainforest and, according to the United Nations, were almost solely inhabited by indigenous groups.

Former US President Theodore Roosevelt trekked into the area in 1914 with famous Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon. It was among the world's most unexplored and dangerous regions, known for anacondas, electric eels, piranhas and thick swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. 

"Far from its outward appearance, the rainforest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite," Candice Millard writes in her 2005 book, "The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey."

"Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day."

Roosevelt nearly died from fever and an infected leg wound on that trip. The tributary he canoed down — then called River of Doubt — was renamed Roosevelt River.

The Roosevelt River is less than 50 miles from the Seventh of September and is near where we're going on patrol. As we drive along highway 364, the once-green landscape is now barren.

Almir turns off the highway and continues north on a narrow, paved road that takes us to Ministro Andreazza, a town of about 11,000 people. It's a dusty outpost with snack stands, appliance stores and car repair shops. There's a sprawling wood factory on the outskirts of town. Dozens of rows of thin planks dry on slatted racks, while tractors haul giant logs and drop them into 10-feet-high stacks.

Annual Landsat satellite imagery taken from 1984 to 2012 shows deforestation surrounding the Seventh of September. 

Google/USGS/Landsat

"This town has many people who destroy the forest," Almir says. "A lot of land conflicts happen with the people who live here."

Ministro Andreazza is a rough-and-tumble frontier town and some of its residents sneak into the Seventh of September to hunt, fish and cut down trees, he explains. Their primary target is the Brazil-nut tree, which grows perfectly straight and can reach 200 feet high. It's been logged with such ferocity in Brazil that it's now endangered and against the law to cut down. But that hasn't stopped the logging.

"They have very little police presence here," Almir says.

"Is it dangerous for you to pass through this town?" I ask.

Almir nods yes and keeps driving.

The road past Ministro Andreazza quickly turns to dirt. Small farms spread across rolling golden hills; white cows graze or sit in the shade. But this bucolic panorama is a veneer. The history of this place is dark and violent. Very little of this land was bought and sold on the books. It was mostly taken in land grabs.

The Seventh of September always had problems with logging, but the situation has gotten worse since gold and diamond deposits were discovered in the territory about five years ago. Some members of the Surui tip off miners about mineral deposits in exchange for payment.

While monthly satellite images from Google Earth show the Surui where these invasions have damaged the forest, they don't help the tribe intervene and stop them. That's where Google Earth Engine comes in.

"What's really needed in these kinds of situations is a near real-time alerting system that's getting fresh imagery, fresh data and can detect when changes happen," says Google Earth's Moore.

Here's how it works: Google partners with rainforest monitoring organizations, like the nonprofits Imazon and Global Forest Watch, to provide computation power for the petabytes of satellite data that come in daily. Google Earth Engine quickly analyzes that data to detect where the forest has been altered. Those organizations can then alert local tribes to the destruction almost as it occurs.

From their office in Cacoal (left) the Surui build GIS maps with information sent from Google Earth and evidence they gather while on patrol. Over the past 10 years, Google Earth has greatly expanded its site to include information about indigenous territories. Users can now explore the Seventh of September on Google Earth (right) and click on information about the Surui's land, culture and history.

James Martin/CNET

"By bringing together local knowledge with cloud computing on the satellite data that's coming in every day, you get the complete picture," Moore says.

Deforestation here has many causes. It started with rubber tapping and mining throughout the 1900s and then moved on to slash-and-burn agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, much of the cleared land is used for cattle ranching or soy and cotton crops.

Rondônia is one of the hardest hit places. By 2010, it had lost 42 percent of its rainforest, according to Global Forest Watch. That number continues to climb. July data from Imazon shows deforestation in Rondônia was higher this year than in any of the last 10 years.

With so little forest left, illegal loggers and prospectors have no qualms about going after indigenous areas, harming both the forest and native cultures.

"Without that territory, without that forest, their cultures can't exist as they have been," says Hettler from the Amazon Conservation Team. "The people and the forest are interconnected."

In 2016, Almir sent out a call for help.

"Since the beginning of this year, we have undergone a total invasion of loggers and gold and diamond prospectors. Every day, 300 trucks leave our territory filled with wood," he wrote, adding that the tribe had found mercury and cyanide in three rivers from the mining.

"The implications are terrible," Almir continued. "In addition to environmental damage and a challenge to our way of life, this invasion is directly endangering our families and our children. We are honestly under threat from loggers' and miners' guns."

After driving about four hours on the dusty road, passing a handful of semitrailers stacked with logs, we reach our turn off. It's marked by two sticks fastened together into a crude cross. There's no road into the territory here, just trampled grass. Almir guns the 4X4 up a small hill and into the forest, parking just far enough in to obscure his pickup among the trees.

From here, we walk. It's hot, dark and loud.

The rainforest isn't a peaceful place. It's constantly moving, shifting and growing. Ferns unfurl and branches and berries drop from the trees. It sounds like it's constantly raining. Scarlet macaws fly overhead squawking and cicadas sing at a fevered pitch. Owls, monkeys and armadillos chirp and scream.

We reach a patrol group of 28 people who arrived before us and have already strung hammocks in clusters of four and five. Shotguns rest against nearby trees. One compound has a campfire going with hot coffee. A man carrying a 6-foot-long bow and arrow comes over to show us a large gray bird he'd just killed for dinner.

As daylight fades, we hang our own hammocks to sleep. Throughout the night I hear semitrailers rumbling up and down the dirt road.

The next morning, we set off on patrol in Almir's pickup. Three armed Surui are with us. We drive along a makeshift path that's choked with shoulder-high weeds. Every once in a while, one of the men jumps out to hack down a branch or vine and haul it out of the way. At one point, Almir slows the truck to a crawl to look at what appears to be another improvised road.

"Loggers made that," he says, and continues on.

After about an hour, we reach a small clearing scattered with wooden stumps. It looks as if someone had camped here.

"Invaders, not indigenous," Almir says.

We eventually make it to the Rio Branco, one of the main rivers that cuts through the Seventh of September. Big, flat volcanic rocks flank the banks of the slow-moving, milky brown river. Almir and his crew hop rock to rock, guns in hand, looking for signs of illegal activity. They find an empty beer can, a telltale sign of invaders since alcohol is forbidden in the territory.

Almir will report these camps and roads to the government and police. But more often than not, they do nothing.

"The government's omission is significant," he says. "Illegal hunting, fishing, logging — it doesn't do anything."

He tells me the authorities use a kick-the-can approach. If he asks the police for help, they send him to government officials. If he goes to the government, those officials send him back to the police. Still, there have been occasions when the authorities assisted. Two years ago, the federal police raided an illegal gold mine in the Seventh of September and burned one of the operator's bulldozers.

rainforest-roadtrip-7034

A member of the Surui prepares a morning campfire while out on patrol. 

James Martin/CNET

Almir says the more proof and information he has of illegal activity, the more likely authorities will help. It's why the Surui focus on gathering evidence and building a case. And it's where being tech-savvy comes into play.

The tribe has an office in Cacoal where they have meetings and trainings and work on computers. Several people are tasked with feeding the information sent from Google Earth and the evidence gathered on patrol into different GIS maps. The Surui then show these maps to federal and state authorities, as well as to international human rights groups and environmental organizations.

To create their maps, the Surui first walked every square foot of the Seventh of September, noting deforested zones, river tributaries and landmarks. That took five years. They then plugged that data into GIS programs, which they now update regularly. Their "risks and threats" map, for instance, shows logging and mining operations, along with makeshift roads and campsites — like the ones we saw.

"We had never put that information on a map that can be updated with technology before," Almir says. "Today it's necessary to do this. If we don't solve each one of these threats, they will become a much bigger problem for our people later."

As we drive back to Cacoal, it's hard to picture the desiccated yellowed land as the lush forest it once was. Almir points to a towering tree standing by itself in a distant field. Its solid thick trunk is straight as an arrow and it has a wide canopy.

rainforest-roadtrip-7275

As night falls in Lapetanha, neighbors gather to tell stories in their native Tupi-Monde language. 

James Martin/CNET

"Brazil-nut tree," he says. "This is the only surviving native here."

He estimates it's about 80 years old, though these trees can live to be more than 500.

"It's not doing well," he adds. "Look at it. It's unhappy alone like that, they like to be surrounded by the forest."

While Almir's work focuses on protecting the Seventh of September, he's acutely aware of the importance of the entire Amazon to the planet. He hopes the Surui's use of technology will become a model for other indigenous groups and conservationists. The tribe is also looking to other solutions. As part of a 50-year plan it created in 1997, the Surui have planted 700,000 trees in the deforested areas of the Seventh of September, including mahogany, cacao, açaí, copaiba and Brazil nut. The goal is to eventually plant 1 million trees.

"Humans can't live without the forest and the forest can't live without humans. Balance is key to nature," Almir says. "Our role is to maintain this equilibrium."

Taking It to Extremes

Click here to see more Road Trip adventures.

Antonio/E+/Getty Images

The forest isn't the only thing that's being reborn. Since their devastating first contact nearly half a century ago, the Surui have been slowly rebuilding their population. Today they have about 1,400 members.

I ask Almir whether he thinks contact was a good thing.

"Everything has impact," he says. "There isn't anything that doesn't have impact."

Then he stops and thinks for a moment.

"It was good," he says definitively. "Because our people didn't cease to exist."

Without contact with the modern world, the Paiter-Surui would have succumbed to the violence and destruction ravaging the forest, he believes. Now they have their own territory and the 21st century tools that could safeguard the future of the True People. 

Photography by senior photographer James Martin.

Originally published Oct. 25.
Update, Nov. 2, 10:08 a.m. PT:  Adds information about newly elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. 


This is part of our Road Trip 2018 summer series "Taking It to Extremes," which looks at what happens when people mix everyday tech with insane situations.