“Die if obligatory, however by no means 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 rectangular plots of dried brown earth. These plots do not appear like US farmland with geometric circles and squares. As an alternative, they seem to be a haphazard jumble of misshapen blotches. A skinny brown river slicing by way of the tangle of bushes will finally wind its method 1000’s of miles throughout the continent. 

Folks do not simply choose up and go to Rondônia. But right here I’m with photographer James Martin, on a aircraft that is circling right down to a small outpost in the course of one of many world’s most remoted and threatened locations. We roll onto a touchdown strip now not than a few metropolis blocks, flanked by yellowed grass.

Bem-vindos a Cacoal,” the flight attendant publicizes.

I am right here to fulfill Almir Narayamoga Surui. He is chief of one of many 4 clans of the Paiter-Surui tribe, which suggests “the True Folks, we ourselves” within the native language. The Surui could be the Amazon’s most technically proficient indigenous group, and Almir could also be among the many Amazon’s most tech-savvy leaders. He is solid a first-of-its-kind partnership with Google Earth to get common satellite tv for pc pictures on unlawful deforestation, and has created maps from geographic info techniques (GIS) to trace high-risk zones. Almir’s additionally managing smartphone information initiatives with tribe members to verify they do not overhunt.

That work is essential to the survival of the rainforest and the individuals who dwell right here.

It is a outstanding transformation because the Surui first contacted the surface world in 1969, when deforestation, cattle ranching and clashes with settlers and rival tribes compelled them to emerge from the forest.

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A younger Surui lady watches YouTube movies on a smartphone. 


James Martin/CNET

That contact nearly value them their existence. New publicity to ailments, like tuberculosis, measles and influenza, decimated the Surui: Their inhabitants dropped from 5,000 members to fewer than 300 members within the 1970s.

Whereas the Surui have lived on this nook of the Amazon lengthy earlier than it turned a part of Brazil, the federal government did not formally grant them their very own territory till 1983. It is referred to as the Seventh of September, named for that first day of contact.

The Seventh of September is almost 1,000 sq. miles and is among the few remaining forested areas within the area. The jungle right here was minimize down on the price of 1 soccer discipline per minute all through the 1980s. Eleven % of Rondônia’s forest vanished in that 10-year span. At the moment, it is the most deforested state in Brazil’s Amazon.

Almir’s purpose now’s to make sure the Seventh of September stays intact. However there are forces actively working in opposition to him.

“The Seventh of September has been invaded by gold miners, loggers and farmers,” Almir says. “Contained in the territory, it is a lot deforestation. And for us, that is very harmful.”

Almir turned chief in 1992 when he was 18. He is stocky and has thick black hair and the extensive facial options typical of the Surui — with heat, brown eyes and a broad nostril. He often opts for denims and a T-shirt, together with conventional beaded necklaces. He says he’ll take me to the Seventh of September to indicate me what he is doing and what the Surui are up in opposition to.

Almir’s work has a way of urgency that goes past defending the Seventh of September and even Rondônia. The whole globe is determined by the Amazon. The world’s largest rainforest produces greater than 20 % of our oxygen and captures about 2.2 billion tons of the Earth’s carbon dioxide per yr. That is equal to what’s emitted from nearly 4.three billion vehicles pushed yearly.

The Amazon additionally has a serious position in regulating the local weather. If the rainforest had been to vanish, world temperatures would soar and rainfall patterns would go haywire, in response to College of Virginia analysis scientists. Hawaii would turn into submerged. Drought would set in throughout the US Midwest. The affect would contact every little thing from agriculture to consuming water.

“The menace is as pressing as ever,” says Brian Hettler, new applied sciences supervisor for Amazon Conservation Workforce, a nonprofit group that works to protect tropical forests and native cultures. “Dropping the carbon dioxide processing of the Amazon rainforest and different tropical forests [would] speed up local weather change and result in an entire chain response of unfavourable environmental penalties.”

Almir, James and I set out from Cacoal in his grey Mitsubishi 4×4 pickup with home windows tinted so darkish no person can see inside. All people right here drives the identical truck. We begin off heading east on a small two-lane freeway after which flip north onto a dust highway.

For miles, the panorama is nothing however fenced off dried-out farmland with the occasional banana, mango or palm tree. Skinny white cows with bulging ribs collect round muddy watering holes. Brightly coloured roadside cement huts, topped with satellite tv for pc dishes, promote chips and Coca-Cola.

I understand we’re driving by way of a kind of brown rectangular plots of land I noticed from the air.

We bump and bounce alongside the grime highway for practically an hour. A darkness looms within the distance. As we get nearer, I see it is a dense wall of rainforest towering practically 200 ft excessive. Huge ficus and lupuna bushes, strangled with vines and preventing for daylight, attain to the highest of the cover.

“That is the sting of the territory,” Almir says, drawing an invisible horizontal line together with his finger.

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Almir Narayamoga Surui, carrying a crown product of chicken feathers to suggest his position as a chief of the Paiter-Surui tribe, stands in the course of his residence village, Lapetanha. 


James Martin/CNET

As we enter the Seventh of September, the farmland instantly shrinks away and the dry air turns into humid. The grime highway’s tan mud turns a darkish brick crimson.

After about 2 miles, the forest opens as much as reveal a village of roughly 75 folks, surrounded by tangerine, banana, espresso and cacao orchards. That is Lapetanha, Almir’s hometown. Chickens run wild amongst wood-plank and cement-block homes. There’s electrical energy, working water, a well being clinic and college. However the predominant construction is a 12-story metal tower bringing Wi-Fi to attach the villagers to the surface world.

Almir introduces me to Rone Mopidmore Surui, who helps monitor looking within the Seventh of September. The Surui nonetheless largely hunt with bows and arrows. However in addition they use smartphones to trace the quantity and sorts of animals they kill — primarily wild pigs, armadillos, birds and monkeys. The tribe began this program in 2010 to make sure they hunt sustainably.  

“Should you do not hunt these animals, they will turn into pests. They eat a whole lot of fruit,” Rone says. “It’s important to hunt not an excessive amount of and never too little to maintain them in management.”

Each month Rone and about 20 different staff interview tribe members to be taught what they’ve hunted. They collect information on the animal’s age, intercourse and weight, in addition to how the animal was killed. The employees additionally discover out whether or not the animal was hunted for meals, artisan provides or medication. If the animal was killed not too long ago, they take a photograph. Rone and the others add this information into an app on their telephones. Then it is compiled and crunched to get the larger image of animal life within the territory.

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A stack of what look like illegally harvested bushes in a distant a part of Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso. 


James Martin/CNET

As night time falls in Lapetanha, Rone joins Almir and different neighbors within the middle of the village. They slap mosquitoes and swap tales of their native Tupi-Monde language. One girl sits on a thatch mat weaving baskets from palm fronds. A younger boy watches Batman YouTube movies on a smartphone.

Almir takes out his personal smartphone and pulls up Google Earth. He zooms in on the Seventh of September, then pinches, grabs and magnifies a zone on the prime of the territory. It does not appear like a lot, only a small brown lump with a few tractors. He explains that it is an unlawful gold mine.

“Can we go there?” I ask.

“You may solely see the photographs,” he says. “To go there may be harmful.”

However, he tells me, we’ll go on patrol and spend the night time within the forest close to there in just a few days.

An outspoken activist, Almir, 44, has spent a long time rallying the Brazilian authorities and worldwide organizations to deliver consideration to deforestation. He met with President Invoice Clinton in 2011 and is on a first-name foundation with Al Gore, Prince Charles, Jane Goodall and Bianca Jagger. He was the primary member of the Surui to go faculty, incomes a bachelor’s diploma in biology from the College of Goiânia in 1995.

In 2003, whereas working in an web cafe, Almir discovered Google Earth. He regarded up Rondônia within the satellite tv for pc mapping engine and zoomed in on the Seventh of September. What he noticed shocked him. The small inexperienced zone that was the Surui territory was surrounded by stark deforestation. Much more disturbing, he noticed areas contained in the Seventh of September that he did not know had been logged.

That is when he realized Google Earth could possibly be an necessary instrument in serving to the Surui shield their land.

4 years later, Almir traveled greater than 5,000 miles to fulfill Rebecca Moore, head of Google Earth, and her group on the firm’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

“He did not come to ask for assist. He got here to suggest a partnership,” Moore says. “He mentioned, ‘you understand about know-how, we all know in regards to the forest.”http://www.cnet.com/”

Almir informed Moore that Google Earth had a whole lot of details about the world’s cities — streets, hospitals, eating places and film theaters — however there was nothing about indigenous territories.

“What he was articulating was not an remoted situation for the Surui. It was true of all of the indigenous folks of the Amazon,” Moore says. “We would have liked to do a greater job with getting them on the map.”

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Due to unlawful logging and mining, once-lush rainforest now seems like this. 


James Martin/CNET

Google Earth now sends Almir satellite tv for pc pictures of the Seventh of September each month and has skilled the Surui to make use of mapping instruments. The corporate additionally added detailed details about the Surui’s land, tradition and historical past to Google Earth. Customers can, for instance, zoom in on the area to view pictures of the jenipapo tree — which produces the ink the Surui use to color their pores and skin — and see the place wild jaguars roam.

At the moment, Google Earth works with 57 tribes throughout the Amazon and with dozens of different indigenous peoples world wide. It is also built-in all of Brazil’s 472 indigenous territories into Google Maps.

Almir’s efforts to finish unlawful logging and mining, and protect native cultures have made him a goal. In 2007, loggers provided $100,000 to have him murdered, forcing him to depart the realm for a few months. Different threats made Almir go away residence once more in 2011. The threats proceed.

Assassinations over land conflicts are widespread within the Amazon. The 1988 homicide of environmentalist Chico Mendes in Rondônia’s neighboring state of Acre could be the most well-known, however it was removed from the final, says watchdog group Pastoral Land Fee. Final yr alone, 70 folks had been murdered over land conflicts in Brazil, up from 61 in 2016.

“It is a time of peril for a lot of cultures within the Amazon,” Moore says. “These are the folks defending the rainforest, that are the lungs of the planet for all of us. All of us have a stake in serving to them defend and protect their cultures and their land.”

The Seventh of September has 27 villages, most of them clustered within the southwestern fringe of the territory that is in Rondônia. The place we’re happening patrol is greater than 100 miles from Lapetanha, in a part of the territory that is within the state of Mato Grosso. There are not any villages or close by cities — solely forest and one grime highway.

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A Surui girl in Lapetanha weaves baskets from palm fronds.


James Martin/CNET

To get there, we begin out on Brazil’s freeway 364, which runs alongside the southern a part of the Amazon from the Peruvian border to the coastal state of São Paulo. Development on the interstate started in 1961 as a part of a authorities initiative to deliver settlers and financial improvement to the Amazon basin. By 1980, half 1,000,000 folks had moved to the area. However with them got here immense deforestation and displacement of native communities.

Earlier than freeway 364, nearly all of Rondônia and Mato Grosso had been carpeted in rainforest and, in response to the United Nations, had been nearly solely inhabited by indigenous teams.

Former US President Theodore Roosevelt trekked into the realm in 1914 with well-known Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon. It was among the many world’s most unexplored and harmful areas, identified for anacondas, electrical eels, piranhas and thick swarms of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. 

“Removed from its outward look, the rainforest was not a backyard of simple abundance, however exactly the alternative,” Candice Millard writes in her 2005 ebook, “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.”

“Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence weren’t a sanctuary however, quite, the best pure battlefield wherever on the planet, internet hosting an unremitting and remorseless battle for survival that occupied each single one among its inhabitants, each minute of day-after-day.”

Roosevelt practically died from fever and an contaminated leg wound on that journey. The tributary he canoed down — then referred to as River of Doubt — was renamed Roosevelt River.

The Roosevelt River is lower than 50 miles from the Seventh of September and is close to the place we’re happening patrol. As we drive alongside freeway 364, the once-green panorama is now barren.

Almir turns off the freeway and continues north on a slender, paved highway that takes us to Ministro Andreazza, a city of about 11,000 folks. It is a dusty outpost with snack stands, equipment shops and automobile restore outlets. There is a sprawling wooden manufacturing facility on the outskirts of city. Dozens of rows of skinny planks dry on slatted racks, whereas tractors haul large logs and drop them into 10-feet-high stacks.

Annual Landsat satellite tv for pc imagery taken from 1984 to 2012 exhibits deforestation surrounding the Seventh of September. 


Google/USGS/Landsat

“This city has many individuals who destroy the forest,” Almir says. “A number of land conflicts occur with the individuals who dwell right here.”

Ministro Andreazza is a rough-and-tumble frontier city and a few of its residents sneak into the Seventh of September to hunt, fish and minimize down bushes, he explains. Their major goal is the Brazil-nut tree, which grows completely straight and might attain 200 ft excessive. It has been logged with such ferocity in Brazil that it is now endangered and in opposition to the regulation to chop down. However that hasn’t stopped the logging.

“They’ve little or no police presence right here,” Almir says.

“Is it harmful so that you can go by way of this city?” I ask.

Almir nods sure and retains driving.

The highway previous Ministro Andreazza rapidly turns to grime. Small farms unfold throughout rolling golden hills; white cows graze or sit within the shade. However this bucolic panorama is a veneer. The historical past of this place is darkish and violent. Little or no of this land was purchased and offered on the books. It was largely taken in land grabs.

The Seventh of September at all times had issues with logging, however the scenario has gotten worse since gold and diamond deposits had been found within the territory about 5 years in the past. Some members of the Surui tip off miners about mineral deposits in change for cost.

Whereas month-to-month satellite tv for pc pictures from Google Earth present the Surui the place these invasions have broken the forest, they do not assist the tribe intervene and cease them. That is the place Google Earth Engine is available in.

“What’s actually wanted in these sorts of conditions is a close to real-time alerting system that is getting recent imagery, recent information and might detect when modifications occur,” says Google Earth’s Moore.

Here is the way it works: Google companions with rainforest monitoring organizations, just like the nonprofits Imazon and International Forest Watch, to offer computation energy for the petabytes of satellite tv for pc information that are available each day. Google Earth Engine rapidly analyzes that information to detect the place the forest has been altered. These organizations can then alert native tribes to the destruction nearly because it happens.

From their workplace in Cacoal (left) the Surui construct GIS maps with info despatched from Google Earth and proof they collect whereas on patrol. Over the previous 10 years, Google Earth has enormously expanded its website to incorporate details about indigenous territories. Customers can now discover the Seventh of September on Google Earth (proper) and click on on details about the Surui’s land, tradition and historical past.


James Martin/CNET

“By bringing collectively native information with cloud computing on the satellite tv for pc information that is coming in day-after-day, you get the whole image,” Moore says.

Deforestation right here has many causes. It began with rubber tapping and mining all through the 1900s after which moved on to slash-and-burn agriculture within the 1970s and 1980s. Now, a lot of the cleared land is used for cattle ranching or soy and cotton crops.

Rondônia is among the hardest hit locations. By 2010, it had misplaced 42 % of its rainforest, in response to International Forest Watch. That quantity continues to climb. July information from Imazon exhibits deforestation in Rondônia was larger this yr than in any of the final 10 years.

With so little forest left, unlawful loggers and prospectors haven’t any qualms about going after indigenous areas, harming each the forest and native cultures.

“With out that territory, with out that forest, their cultures cannot exist as they’ve been,” says Hettler from the Amazon Conservation Workforce. “The folks and the forest are interconnected.”

In 2016, Almir despatched out a name for assist.

“For the reason that starting of this yr, we have now undergone a complete invasion of loggers and gold and diamond prospectors. Day by day, 300 vans go away our territory crammed with wooden,” he wrote, including that the tribe had discovered mercury and cyanide in three rivers from the mining.

“The implications are horrible,” Almir continued. “Along with environmental harm and a problem to our lifestyle, this invasion is instantly endangering our households and our kids. We’re actually underneath menace from loggers’ and miners’ weapons.”

After driving about 4 hours on the dusty highway, passing a handful of semitrailers stacked with logs, we attain our flip off. It is marked by two sticks fixed collectively right into a crude cross. There isn’t any highway into the territory right here, simply trampled grass. Almir weapons the 4X4 up a small hill and into the forest, parking simply far sufficient in to obscure his pickup among the many bushes.

From right here, we stroll. It is sizzling, darkish and loud.

The rainforest is not a peaceable place. It is always transferring, shifting and rising. Ferns unfurl and branches and berries drop from the bushes. It sounds prefer it’s always raining. Scarlet macaws fly overhead squawking and cicadas sing at a fevered pitch. Owls, monkeys and armadillos chirp and scream.

We attain a patrol group of 28 individuals who arrived earlier than us and have already strung hammocks in clusters of 4 and 5. Shotguns relaxation in opposition to close by bushes. One compound has a campfire going with sizzling espresso. A person carrying a 6-foot-long bow and arrow comes over to indicate us a big grey chicken he’d simply killed for dinner.

As daylight fades, we hold our personal hammocks to sleep. All through the night time I hear semitrailers rumbling up and down the grime highway.

The subsequent morning, we set off on patrol in Almir’s pickup. Three armed Surui are with us. We drive alongside a makeshift path that is choked with shoulder-high weeds. Each every now and then, one of many males jumps out to hack down a department or vine and haul it out of the best way. At one level, Almir slows the truck to a crawl to take a look at what seems to be one other improvised highway.

“Loggers made that,” he says, and continues on.

After about an hour, we attain a small clearing scattered with wood stumps. It seems as if somebody had camped right here.

“Invaders, not indigenous,” Almir says.

We finally make it to the Rio Branco, one of many most important rivers that cuts by way of the Seventh of September. Massive, flat volcanic rocks flank the banks of the slow-moving, milky brown river. Almir and his crew hop rock to rock, weapons in hand, searching for indicators of criminality. They discover an empty beer can, a telltale signal of invaders since alcohol is forbidden within the territory.

Almir will report these camps and roads to the federal government and police. However as a rule, they do nothing.

“The federal government’s omission is critical,” he says. “Unlawful looking, fishing, logging — it does not do something.”

He tells me the authorities use a kick-the-can strategy. If he asks the police for assist, they ship him to authorities officers. If he goes to the federal government, these officers ship him again to the police. Nonetheless, there have been events when the authorities assisted. Two years in the past, the federal police raided an unlawful gold mine within the Seventh of September and burned one of many operator’s bulldozers.

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


James Martin/CNET

Almir says the extra proof and data he has of criminality, the extra doubtless authorities will assist. It is why the Surui deal with gathering proof and constructing a case. And it is the place being tech-savvy comes into play.

The tribe has an workplace in Cacoal the place they’ve conferences and trainings and work on computer systems. A number of persons are tasked with feeding the knowledge despatched from Google Earth and the proof gathered on patrol into totally different GIS maps. The Surui then present these maps to federal and state authorities, in addition to to worldwide human rights teams and environmental organizations.

To create their maps, the Surui first walked each sq. foot of the Seventh of September, noting deforested zones, river tributaries and landmarks. That took 5 years. They then plugged that information into GIS packages, which they now replace repeatedly. Their “dangers and threats” map, for example, exhibits logging and mining operations, together with makeshift roads and campsites — like those we noticed.

“We had by no means put that info on a map that may be up to date with know-how earlier than,” Almir says. “At the moment it is necessary to do that. If we do not clear up every one among these threats, they are going to turn into a a lot greater downside for our folks later.”

As we drive again to Cacoal, it is laborious to image the desiccated yellowed land as the plush forest it as soon as was. Almir factors to a towering tree standing by itself in a distant discipline. Its strong thick trunk is straight as an arrow and it has a large cover.

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As night time falls in Lapetanha, neighbors collect to inform tales of their native Tupi-Monde language. 


James Martin/CNET

“Brazil-nut tree,” he says. “That is the one surviving native right here.”

He estimates it is about 80 years previous, although these bushes can dwell to be greater than 500.

“It isn’t doing properly,” he provides. “Take a look at it. It is sad alone like that, they prefer to be surrounded by the forest.”

Whereas Almir’s work focuses on defending the Seventh of September, he is conscious about the significance of the whole Amazon to the planet. He hopes the Surui’s use of know-how will turn into a mannequin for different indigenous teams and conservationists. The tribe can also be trying to different options. As a part of a 50-year plan it created in 1997, the Surui have planted 700,000 bushes within the deforested areas of the Seventh of September, together with mahogany, cacao, açaí, copaiba and Brazil nut. The purpose is to finally plant 1 million bushes.

“People cannot dwell with out the forest and the forest cannot dwell with out people. Stability is vital to nature,” Almir says. “Our position is to keep up this equilibrium.”

Taking It to Extremes

Click on right here to see extra Highway Journey adventures.


Antonio/E+/Getty Pictures

The forest is not the one factor that is being reborn. Since their devastating first contact practically half a century in the past, the Surui have been slowly rebuilding their inhabitants. At the moment they’ve about 1,400 members.

I ask Almir whether or not he thinks contact was a very good factor.

“All the things has affect,” he says. “There is not something that does not have affect.”

Then he stops and thinks for a second.

“It was good,” he says definitively. “As a result of our folks did not stop to exist.”

With out contact with the fashionable world, the Paiter-Surui would have succumbed to the violence and destruction ravaging the forest, he believes. Now they’ve their very own territory and the 21st century instruments that might safeguard the way forward for the True Folks. 

Images by senior photographer James Martin.


That is a part of our Highway Journey 2018 summer time collection “Taking It to Extremes,” which seems at what occurs when folks combine on a regular basis tech with insane conditions.