Indigenous Leaders Call Foul On Once-Revered Catholic Organization

Steve Zwick

Brazil’s Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI) has arguably done more than any other single organization to help indigenous people demarcate their lands, but many indigenous leaders say their onetime protector has become paternalistic and possessive. Last week, after CIMI attacked the Surui Forest Carbon Project, indigenous leaders took to Facebook – and launched a campaign that could go all the way to the Vatican.

22 December 2014 | Julio Surui couldn’t believe his eyes.

He and other members of the Paiter-Surui Parliament had worked hard to eject illegal loggers from their indigenous territory in the Amazon, and they’d mostly succeeded: all but a few of the loggers who once ran roughshod over their territory were gone, and as a result, the traditional hunting grounds had come back to life, while the children had begun to embrace their forgotten traditions even as they learned to navigate the outside world.

That doesn’t mean the logging threat was over. Far from it. Loggers had threatened to murder Julio and other members of the community who locked them out, and those threats gained credibility in September and November, when loggers and miners assassinated leaders of the Ashéninka and Shuar people in Peru and Ecuador. Earlier, police had uncovered a plot to assassinate Almir Surui, the Paiter-Surui’s “chief of chiefs”, or Labiway Esaga, and federal authorities had placed him under 24-hour armed protection.

Disturbingly, some members of the Paiter-Surui were colluding with loggers, but their activities were concentrated around one entry point, known as “Line 14″, and Julio and the Parliament knew them well. They were the remnants of an old guard who had a long and complex relationship with loggers dating back to the 1980s. The current leadership saw their activities as a troubling but manageable nuisance, akin to the challenges that any government faces when dealing with, say, illegal dumping or building-code violations.

Yet when the young indigenous leader opened the latest copy of Porantim, the flagship publication of Brazil’s Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (Conselho Indigenista Missionário, “CIMI”), he saw the leader of the logging faction, Henrique Yabaday Surui, staring back at him.

The Disconnect

CIMI is a Catholic organization revered among many indigenes, but Henrique is known among his people as the main dissident selling illegal hardwood along Line 14. For Julio, it was a surreal experience – in part because the photo was of Henrique in his heyday, when he was a charismatic leader whose collusion with loggers had the support of the community. In fact, the entire magazine was full of old images, often of long-dead Paiter-Surui – an act considered an insult to their people.

 The Paiter-Surui Metareilá Indigenous Association's response to Porantim's broadside on their efforts to combat deforestation
The Paiter-Surui Metareilá Indigenous Association’s response to Porantim’s broadside on their efforts to combat deforestation.

But what struck Julio the hardest were Henrique’s words (available in English here). They seemed to come from a dystopian parallel universe – one where Henrique and his small contingent of loggers were defending indigenous traditions, and where the duly-elected Parliament didn’t exist.

Not only that, but the interview – and in fact the entire magazine – seemed contrived to torpedo the Surui Forest Carbon Project (SFCP), which taps carbon markets to save their forest. The SFCP uses a financing mechanism called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) to generate carbon offsets based on the carbon content of the trees that the project saves, and it’s what enabled them to eject the loggers.

Incensed, Julio did something unprecedented. He sat down at his computer and used his Facebook pageto boldly and publicly call out a powerful organization revered by older indigenous people, but increasingly under fire from younger indigenes more interested in exercising their autonomy.

“I, Julio Surui, acting in my capacity as a representative of the Makor Parliamentary System of Governance of the Paiter-Surui people, hereby condemn Porantim, the newspaper of the Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI),” he began – and he wasn’t alone.

CIMI: Ends and Means

We reached out to CIMI for comment, but they have not yet responded.

No one denies that the organization fought hard to secure demarcation of indigenous lands in the 1970s, and it continues to do good work today, but many indigenous leaders say it’s become paternalistic and heavy-handed in dealing with indigenes who don’t toe the party line.

That party line is laid out quite clearly in the closing pages of Porantim: “We need to regain the memory of humanity on our links with nature, expressed in Sumak Kawsay (Live Well),” it reads. “The environment, and the cultures living in harmony with it, should be the basis for human development and societies; not an item of the market economy.”* (Italics added.)

While many indigenous leaders, including Almir and Julio Surui, support CIMI’s efforts to protect uncontacted tribes, of which there are more than 60 still, the organization has a long history of locking horns with indigenous leaders whose vision differs from theirs.

“They see us as their little Indians,” Almir once said. “They think they know better than we do how we should lead our lives, and they punish us when we don’t follow orders.”

Even Ailton Krenak, the indigenous leader who was instrumental in getting indigenous rights enshrined in the Brazilian constitution, ran afoul of CIMI when he helped the Paiter-Surui launch their early efforts at sustainable agriculture in the late 1980s – efforts that failed initially, but formed the basis of the community’s current sustainable development program. The payback came when he embarked on a fundraising tour of the United States with legendary Brazilian entertainer Milton Nascimento. CIMI accused him of pocketing the proceeds of that tour for himself – accusations that later proved baseless.

Almir locked horns with CIMI throughout the 1990s, as he chose to cooperate with the World Bank rather than fight them, but the Paiter-Surui felt the full wrath of CIMI when Almir launched the REDD Project.

Almir and Henrique: The Rivalry That Defines a People

To understand the REDD Project, you have to understand the Paiter-Surui political constellation, which centers on their relationship with the forest. One pole of the constellation sees the forest as a source of timber, and the other sees it as a source of life, with most members scattered in between.

    • For a detailed examination of the history of logging in the Surui Territory, see “Almir Surui: Perseverance Under Pressure“.
    • Disclosure: The author is working with Chief Almir on his autobiography, and has interviewed him and scores of other members of the community, including those in Henrique’s camp, extensively. Efforts to speak with Henrique himself or with CIMI have been unsuccessful.


Henrique is a former Labiway Esaga who first won office in the 1980s on a platform that was decidedly pro-development: he wanted to chop the forest to meet the needs of his people. Almir emerged as Henrique’s primary rival in the 1990s, and advocated a platform of conservation.

The two men are as different tempermentally as they are philosophically. In his youth, Henrique was courageous and had a flair for the dramatic. Though an advocate of logging, he wasn’t afraid to pull arms on loggers who short-changed his people, and he engaged in bloody battles with them in the 1990s. He also spoke truth to power, and once pulled his bow and arrow on a Brazilian Senator named Antonio Carlos Magalhães – only to be grabbed from behind by environmentalist and eventual presidential candidate Marina Silva. Almir is more deliberative, and tends to seek compromise over conflict.

To this day, the Paiter-Surui are roughly split into three schools of thought: Almir’s school is dead-set against chopping the forest, while Henrique’s school advocates logging. The middle school – possibly the majority – is akin to the global middle class: they don’t want to chop the trees, but they need to feed their families, and in the early days, Henrique’s logging activities seemed to meet that need. Over time, as Almir found ways to make money for his people by protecting the forest, his star rose as Henrique’s set.

Almir’s efforts culminated with the REDD project, which propelled Almir into the positon of Labiway Esaga in 2010.

The REDD Project: Public and Private Goods

Money from the REDD initiative goes into a segregated account held by the Fundo Brasileiro Para a Biodiversidade (FUNBIO), and it’s used to pay for specific activities designed to jump-start a 50-Year “Life Plan” that grew out of Krenak’s early efforts to help the Surui revive traditional practices. The plan supports their traditional practices by creating an economy built on sustainable forest products like Brazil nuts and acai, as well as ecotourism and traditional handicrafts.

Early funding is key to implementing the plan, and if the Paiter-Surui are to earn all the offsets they hope to, they must keep illegal deforestation at a level 90% lower than what it was in the past. So, when the Paiter-Surui Parliament learned that Henrique had started letting loggers back into the territory, they confronted him. When Henrique refused to halt his activities, Almir invited local police to accompany him on a helicopter flight over Henrique’s village to see if they could help.

“The police saw the loggers,” Almir says. “But they told us it was an internal matter for us to sort out ourselves.”

The Interview

The internal matter became part of the national debate when CIMI interviewed Henrique, whose version of events differed considerably from that of most members of the community.

“We are now in the hands of the Federal Police, who threaten us for anything – from taking trees for our own needs to hunting on our own land,” Henrique is quoted as saying – a statement that had a germ of truth in it. After all, Almir had called the police, but they’d refused to act, and the only federal police who entered the territory were Almir’s bodyguards, who were assigned to protect him after loggers threatened his life.”

And as for restrictions on hunting?

“The Paiter-Surui 50-Year Plan never banned the use of the Earth, much less hunting, fishing, or the creation of new agricultural plots developed in a traditional and sustainable way,” wrote Almir on his Facebook page. “The only activities we oppose are the illegal extraction of timber at an unfair price or the leasing of the Earth to invaders for fishing and poaching – activities long supported and authorized by Henrique Surui.”

Henrique went on to allege that members of the Surui had been told that REDD funding would flow directly into their accounts, but both Julio and Almir deny ever making such promises – and, in fact, Almir’s 50-Year plan explicitly focused on the common good.

Julio’s Response

“I found it rather absurd to read the false accusations and slanderous statements against Almir Surui, his 50-Year Plan, (plano de gestão do território Sete de Setembro), and the Surui Forest Carbon Project,” wrote Julio. “The fact is that there are other interests behind these false accusations and affirmations, seeking to empower the illegal exploitation of timber and the natural resources of the Surui traditional lands.”

He then asked why CIMI would turn a blind eye to illegal logging while sabotaging a mechanism that was delivering tangible benefits.

“It is absurd that CIMI supports this act, committing a grave crime by causing division and intrigue among the Surui people,” he wrote. “Does the Church really support this? Why have they not protested the illegal exploitation of timber and the other illegal activities that are happening within the Surui Indigenous Lands?”

Other Responses

And he wasn’t the only one speaking up. The Metareilá Indigenous people’s Association, which speaks in one voice on behalf of the four clans of the Paiter-Surui and acts as project proponent for the REDD Project, formally denounced CIMI on their Facebook page as well.

“When a newspaper of the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples strikes an indigenous project with the serious accusations of misuse of money, purchase of leaders, federal police coercion, transfer of territory and preventing the exercise of traditional activities, it is necessary to react,” they wrote – adding that they had filed a formal complaint with the Ethics Committee of the Federal Journalism Society (Sindicato dos Jornalistas do Distrito Federal).

“We know that CIMI has deep ideological divergence in relation to environmental compensation projects, and we are able to follow the debate on this subject, and even participate in it,” they continued. “However, we hoped that the members of that entity knew the difference between debating an environmental issue and conducting an outright smear campaign against the name and reputation of an entire indigenous people.”

Beyond the Paiter-Surui

Members of the neighboring Gavião and Arara took issue with CIMI’s broadside.

Both peoples are exploring the use of REDD to implement long-term life plans, and both are working with COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin / Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica), an umbrella organization of indigenous organizations across the Amazon, on something called “Indigenous REDD”, which also aims to harness carbon finance to support indigenous Life Plans, but may or may not tap markets. The discussions have been going on for several years, but Henrique’s comments portrayed the two peoples as naïvely stumbling into a bad deal. Delson Gavião, head of the Padereehj Association, issued a formal condemnation of his own, also posted on Facebook.

“These are lies aimed at harming indigenous people and damaging projects that are running correctly and helping to protect indigenous lands from the advance of illegal logging and the destruction of the forest,” he wrote. “We reject the comments of Henrique Surui, which were published by CIMI, because neither he nor they have been on our land to discuss the projects we’re executing, much less done anything to address the problem of illegal logging on indigenous lands.”

He went on to attack “the disrespectful attitude of CIMI and Henrique Surui, which only serves to propagate lies, divide the indigenous people, facilitate the theft of wood, and enable colonial invasions in our lands. We do not allow anyone – whether ‘white’ or indigenous – to treat our people and institutions with disrespect.”

Almir Responds

Fearing that Henrique’s comments would drive a wedge between his people and their neighbors, Almir – who had long asked his people to go easy on Henrique – then took to Facebook as well to make it clear that Henrique did not speak for the majority of his people, and todetail Henrique’s record.

“Does he, by any chance, have another project or initiative better for the Paiter-Surui?” he asked. “As far as I know, Henrique Surui is the greatest destroyer of our forests and their rich biodiversity, because he has been involved for quite some time in the illegal sale of timber, and he works day-by-day to convince other people and families to join him in his illegal activities.”

But he also took CIMI to task, and accused them of manipulating Henrique, who has been working through some health issues at CIMI facilities.

“We will not let a single indigene, one who had been involved in the sale of illegal timber and manipulated by CIMI, disrupt our strategic plan or interfere with the strengthening of the autonomy of our people,” he wrote.

Other members of the community have called on Almir to file a complaint with the Vatican, where Pope Francis used his Christmas address to rail against the Curia for acting as “lords of the manor – superior to everyone and everything.”

For acting, in other words, the way these indigenous leaders say CIMI has been behaving.

Steve Zwick is Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace. He can be reached at [email protected].

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