Family rivalry and Brazil’s Catholic church helped miners devastate an indigenous territory that was once a leader in the fight against deforestation
September 27, 2017 — The Paiter-Suruí are a tribe of roughly 1,400 people, uncontacted until 1969, who live in the Amazon forest on the border between the Brazilian states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso.
In 2013, they became the first indigenous population in the world to sell carbon credits under the UN’s major anti-deforestation scheme. Then, last year, they discovered the earth beneath their forest was rich with diamonds, and all hell broke loose.
The Paiter-Suruí’s 248,000-hectare Seventh of September territory sits on one of the largest unexplored diamond reserves on earth. As the miners moved in, the carbon credit programme collapsed.
But this was not a simple story of industry overpowering conservation. The destruction of this remote part of the Amazon forest reveals the tactics of a campaign by one of Brazil’s most powerful institutions, the Catholic church, that promotes divisions within tribes to bring down carbon credit schemes.
The Seventh of September territory – named after Brazil’s independence day – has long been the subject of the competing visions of two cousins and leaders in the Paiter-Suruí community, Almir and Henrique Suruí.
Almir dreamt of providing a long term, sustainable income for the community through carbon farming under the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (Redd+) programme.
For a while, it worked. In 2013, the Paiter-Suruí sold 120,000 tonnes of carbon offsets to Brazilian cosmetics giant Natura – the first deal of its kind struck by an indigenous group anywhere on earth. The following year, Fifa bought the same number of credits in order to reduce the footprint of the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil. In 2013, Almir won a UN Forest for People award.
But Henrique, who admitted to this reporter in 2015 he was involved in illegal logging during an interview published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo (Portuguese), was not convinced. The proceeds from the carbon were not being divided up evenly he said, and he began to campaign against his cousin, trying to convince villagers to reject the scheme.
It was a struggle of will and local politics. Then, three years ago, Henrique enlisted an ally – the Catholic church.
Brazilian NGO, the Institute for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Amazon (Idesam), has been involved in the carbon credit project from its outset. Senior researcher Mariano Cenamo told Climate Home opponents inside the Paiter-Suruí had been heavily influenced by the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), an arm of the Catholic church and the most influential pro-indigenous lobby group in Brazil, even among non-Catholic groups such as the Paiter-Suruí.
Cimi officially opposes carbon credits on the basis that they commodify the indigenous relationship to their land. It is widely rumoured in Brazil that in 2015 Cimi’s then president Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who advised Pope Francis on the writing of his encyclical on climate change Laudato Si, convinced the pontiff to include a passage that condemned carbon credits as “new form of speculation”.
“Cimi promoted the conflict between two different groups inside a territory in order to support an ideological position,” said Cenamo of the Paiter-Suruí. “They strengthened a group that destroyed a world-renowned project. It’s scary.”
Ivaneide Cardozo, the head of local NGO Kanindé, which works closely with the Paiter-Suruí said: “Cimi contributed to increased deforestation in the Seventh of September. It strengthened the party that cuts down the forest.”
In late 2014, Cimi’s newspaper Porantim, one of the major indigenous publications in Brazil, ran a interview with Henrique, in which he accused Almir of misleading the Paiter-Suruí and said: “Life in the community has radically changed. It’s no longer allowed to hunt, to fish, to plant and to produce handicrafts.”
A few weeks later, accompanied by a Cimi lawyer, Henrique had an audience in the national attorney general’s office for indigenous affairs in Brasília. According to official records, Henrique told the government the carbon project was “weakening” the Paiter-Suruí.
In an article about the meeting, Porantim said the carbon project was “loathed” by the Paiter-Suruí and depicted Redd+ initiatives as the “politics of green capitalism and neocolonialism”. As a result of Henrique’s lobbying, the prosecutor’s office in the state of Rondônia began monitoring the carbon project.
Five months after the meeting, in July 2015, this reporter visited the territory and could not verify the claims made by Henrique about the loss of community life. But by that time support for the carbon project was already dwindling: only 10 out of 25 Paiter-Suruí villages were still participating and disagreements over how to redistribute the money divided the Paiter-Suruí.
In 2015, gold was discovered. Then, last year, it was diamonds. Police footage, published on Climate Home for the first time, shows the devastating scars left on this pristine part of the Amazon. Last year, 20 hectares were stripped by mining, according to the last monitoring report of the Suruí Forest Carbon Project.
Money generated by diamonds fuels the conversion of forest into pasture. Between 2015 and 2016, the territory lost 653 hectares of forest, a deforestation rate 256% higher than the Redd+ project’s allowable limit, leading to the decision to suspend the programme.
“We couldn’t generate more carbon credits because the deforestation rate was larger than predicted,” said Almir, in a telephone interview with Climate Home. “We couldn’t control it.” According to monitoring by NGO Imazon, between August 2016 and July 2017, Seventh of September had the seventh-worst deforestation rate among 419 indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon.
Redd+ is the UN climate treaty’s major tool for combating the destruction of forests in developing countries. Florian Eisele, a spokesman for UN-Redd said no faith group was opposed to the programme on a global level and he was “surprised to hear that the Catholic church has been an opponent to Redd+ in Brazil”.
Brazil’s deforestation rate has increased by 24% and 29% respectively in the past two years, after falling for a decade. The inability of an existing and high-profile project to deter mining highlights the difficulty of combating deforestation in an Amazon region increasingly falling prey to legal and illegal industries. Communities are faced with the choice of fast cash or slower, more careful sustainable income. Convincing them to take the long road is tough.
The extent to which the Paiter-Suruí exemplify this was revealed during police raids of the mines in their territory this year. According to a police report, seen by Climate Home, the main indigenous leader behind the diamond mining is Henrique Suruí.
“He only thinks and moves in accordance with mining interests,” said the report. “On the day of the raid, the federal police found heavy machinery in the mining area, which was under supervision and leadership of Indians. It is beyond doubt that they belong to the group led by Henrique Suruí.”
In a phone interview, Henrique told Climate Home the police accusation that he was a linchpin for current mining operations was “a big lie”.
“The guilty one is the federal government. The mining is a disgrace that affects our culture and our land. I blame the white man,” he said. “The carbon project is better than mining, it preserves the environment, but the money it generated should have been distributed for the whole community.”
According to federal police sources, since Climate Home last spoke to Henrique, he and two other Paiter-Suruí admitted involvement with illegal mining and struck a deal in order to collaborate in exchange of minor punishment.
By phone, Cimi executive secretary Cleber Buzatto, told Climate Home the relationship with Henrique was no longer close after the suspicions of his involvement in illegal activities. He said that, during Cimi’s involvement with him, there was nothing linking Henrique to forestry or mining.
“It was quite the opposite, he had always exercised an important leadership in Rondônia state,” said Buzatto. “He was interviewed under these circumstances. He expressed his criticism about carbon credits, which, in our opinion, was well-grounded, especially due to the concentration of the programme in Almir Suruí’s inner circle.”
Almir, however, said that he explained Henrique’s involvement with logging to Cimi as soon as the interview came out, to no avail. “I simply can’t understand why Cimi support the total annihilation of our land instead of a preservation project,” he said.
Buzatto said carbon credit programs tend to undermine collective organisations and change indigenous relationships to nature into mercantile transactions.
Cimi’s attention has now turned to another pioneering carbon credit agreement between a tribe and German development bank KfW, in the neighbouring state of Acre. On 31 July, 57 indigenous leaders and 11 indigenous organisations signed a letter criticising Cimi’s campaign against the Acre scheme. “It comes as a surprise to us that Cimi’s chapter in Acre is making intrigues, acting in bad faith and provoking discord and conflicts among us,” said the letter.
Regarding the controversy in Acre, Buzatto said most of indigenous leaders in the region opposed Redd+. He said that the subscribers of that letter were directly linked to the programme.
Meanwhile in Seventh of September, with the carbon credit scheme in tatters, Henrique’s concentration has shifted to legitimising mining.
“As everybody wants to dig for diamond in our lands, we want it to be without the white man’s involvement,” he told Climate Home.
As the schism among the Paiter-Suruí widens, Almir said that his followers, now a minority inside the ethnic group, are exploring alternatives to carbon. “Some of us went to Europe and struck deals to export coffee and Brazilian nuts. We will try to survive from sustainable agriculture and handicraft. We will find alternatives.”