The indigenous people of the Suruí were officially contacted by Brazilian non-indigenous in the year of 1969. The construction of part of Federal Highway BR-364 connecting Cuiabá (north of Mato Grosso) to Porto Velho (capital of Rondônia) was responsable for this encounter. In the following decades, thousands of kilometres of lands were opened (deforested) by the arriving settlers in one of the most massive migrations of the 20th century in the global west (BROWDER et al, 1998). In 1975, over one million ha of land were designated for early settlers by the Brazilian Federal government. In its peak in 1984-1986, 160.000 settlers arrived yearly in what is now known as the state of Rondônia, thus, pressuring local traditional and indigenous populations who inhabitted the region. A 247,000 ha territory named Terra Indígena Sete de Setembro – situated between the municipalities of Cacoal (east Rondônia), Espigao d´Oeste and Rondolândia (both in the neighbouring Mato Grosso) is reserved for the Paiter Surui by Decree 88867 of 17 October 1983. By then, the land was already occupied by farmers and loggers, who were evicted from the newly-demarcated land. Economic activities from both inside the territory as well as its borders are logging, farming and mining. The hardships endured by the Suruí after contact with non-indigenous were many, such as: disease epidemics, loss of traditional livelihood, the lack of financial resources and access to basic services, and conflicts with its neighbours. Invasions from loggers outside of the territory in search of timber, from farmers looking for arable land and also from mining “garimpeiros”, have put pressure onto the Suruí communities and conflicts have been a constant in the last decades. It is important to reinforce though, that the revenues from timber extraction were historically not equally divided amongst the Suruí and have always meant a conflictive issue inside the community. In the early 2000´s, the scarcity of timber inside Sete de Setembro forced the Suruí to search for new means of economic activities, other than logging. Whereas farming and cattle have played significant role. It is under this narrative, that the Projeto de Carbono Suruí (Carbon Project of the Suruí) was developed: as an economic alternative that could both provide the financial means to provide better líving conditions to its people whilst keeping the forest standing.
The project started being envisioned in 2007 by Almir Suruí, one of the leaderships of the Suruí. It was designed in association with indigenous institution Kanindé. At that point in time, it is said that the majority of the 26 villages that compose the Suruí community were in accordance with the project. Although many had not a complete idea of what it meant and how it worked (CIMI, 2015). As such, the Project moved on with the assistance from other institutions such as Kanindé Association for Ethno-Environmental ProtectionEquipe de Conservacao da Amazônia Forest Trends. It was deemed to be the first carbon project to be developed by an indigenous community. It was only in 2013 that the first sale of carbon credits was made – for the Brazilian based company Natura, a developer and producer of cosmetics – with the monetary value of R$ 1,2 million (+/- US$ 400.000).
The conflictuous implications of Projeto de Carbono Suruí starts at this point. A division within the Suruí communities leaders occured. When, upon receiving resources from the carbon credit sales from the project, it is said by a few leaders of the Suruí community that there has been no transparency of the use of the money, families have not been granted better living conditions and the economic activities who were once possible are now being limited by the project (MOVIMENTO MUNDIAL POR LOS BOSQUES TROPICALES, 2015). They claim that the Associacao Metareilá (an association that encompasses all the communities of the Suruí people) was clearly divided after the funds from the project were not equally distributed amongst them and that groups that started questioning the projected eventually suffered repraisals. The insertion of the project granted further pressures to be made upon the Suruí people. For example, inspections from the Federal Police gained force inside the territory, not only to combat illegal loggers from outside, but also to suppress subsistance land use by members of the Suruí as well as hunting. Claims have been made that under these conditions, many families have lacked the resources to provide for their own basic needs. Notwithstanding, the social fabric of the community suffers from further divisions and the growing distance from the sense of unity they once had.
As such, part of the Suruí community has gathered around some of its leaders to ask for the interruption of the project. Mobilization started in 2014. In december of the same year, this current of the Suruí formally asked the Public Attorney of the State of Rondônia to intervene and bring the project to a halt. They also assembled their claim and made their arguments heard by FUNAI (National Foundation for the Indigenous) and the Federal Public Ministery in Brasília. Several NGOs and institutions such as CIMI (Missionary Indigenous Council) have been supportive of this initiative of members of the Suruí people in their claims against the Project.
On the other hand, leaderships from the Suruí who have had the upperhand in taking the Project on from the beggining deny the above claims. In announcements, they have claimed that the Carbon Project is an alternative for its peoples and go further by claiming that the Carbon Project “guarantees the life of the next generations, the forest standing, fauna conservation, sustainable development and the sovereignty of the indigenous people” (PAITER, 2015). Their strategy, thus to disqualify and criminalize the members of the Suruí who have filed claims against the Project. They argue that these members are linked to the “theft of timber” from inside the territory and are “contributing to the destruction of the forest for the own benefit” (PAITER, 2015). This group of the Suruí people also are aligned both discursively and interest wise to both national and international organizations supportive of the Project, to the Government of the State of Rondônia (interested in the marketing of the project) and NGO´s favoring REDD+ experiments. These hold preeminance in the media and offer a dominant narrative around the project that legitimates the instrument of REDD as a positive impact onto communities.
The conflict hereby described is set between unequal forces. Where in one hand, members that support the Project are backed by international NGO´s, great Brazilian corporation such as Natura and also mainstream media. As such, resistence has been set by part of the Suruí community along with Federal and State intitutions, NGO´s and other institutions. Getting their word out has been successful to call attention to their cause and to reinforce pressure on project members/organizers. As such, stakeholders involved must bring about solutions that offer better living conditions to the Suruí people. It is mostly in the hands of FUNAI and the Public Federal Ministry to further investigate the claims and, in participatory manner, offer alternatives that can encompass the collectiveness and unity of the Suruí people.