“We indigenous peoples have ideas to stave off the end of the planet”

Txai Suruí

03 September 2022

Txai Suruí is 25 years old, with an important lineage and identity, coming as she does from a well-known and influential family of activists. Her father is Chief Almir Suruí, who grew up in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, of the tribe of the Lapetanha in Rondônia. He was defined in 2012 by Forbes magazine as the most creative Brazilian in business and the following year elected “Hero of the Forest” by the United Nations. Her mother is Ivaneide Suruí, a legendary figure in the fight against deforestation in the Amazon.

Txai has embraced the family’s tradition and is furthering it too. She is an activist of the Paiter Suruí people; coordinator of Kanindé, an association for ethno-environmental defence that has been working with the indigenous people for 30 years; coordinator of the Indigenous Youth Movement of Rondônia; volunteer of Engajamundo; and, councillor of WWF Brazil.

This is not a Curriculum Vitae. After all, “Activism was not a choice. We fight because we have no other choice, and we have to do it the best way we can”, says this young, prepared and determined young woman.

 “While you close your eyes to reality, the forest guardian Ari-Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, my childhood friend, was killed for defending nature. Indigenous peoples are on the frontline of the climate emergency, so they must be at the centre of decisions to stem it. We have ideas to avert the end of the world. Let us curb the emissions of false and irresponsible promises, end the pollution of empty words and fight for a livable present and future. Let our utopia be a future for the Earth”.

Ten months ago, she stood before more than one hundred global leaders who had gathered in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference wearing her green feather headdress. “We call it Cocar. We change it according to the occasion. For COP 26, I wore a war Cocar to reiterate that we natives are willing to fight, not with weapons but with the wisdom of words. My uncles did it when they knew I would represent not only ours, but all the native peoples of the Amazon before the world”, she says, as she tries on the “feathered crown” over her hair pulled back into a long, shiny black tail. The Cocar looks strange paired with jeans. This is how - glasses, tablet, feathers and trousers - this young woman roamed the corridors of the Scottish event campus in Glasgow who, even before she turned 25, was asked to open COP 26.

On  October 31, 2021, the opening day of the UN Conference, her father’s prophecy, the cacique (chief) Almir Narayamoga, came true. Shortly after her birth, when presenting Txai to the Paiter-Suruí community of Sete do Setembro, in Cacoal, he placed the child on a tree trunk and described her as a future labiway esagah, a leader in the Tupi-mondé language spoken by the natives. Txai learnt endurance before even coming into the world. During her pregnancy, her mother, Neidinha, a long-standing activist, spent long hours telling her long-awaited daughter about the myths of her people. In addition, she urged her to protect it, as her parents had tried to do, in the forefront of denouncing the incursions of timber traffickers. A commitment for which the couple was repeatedly threatened with death, forced into hiding and to live with a security escort.

The Amazon issue divides the world. There is the protection of the world’s largest rainforest, a fundamental ecosystem for the survival of humankind in this land; and there are the aims on the management of its immense resources. On the one hand, the conflict is environmental, historical and cultural; on the other, it is economic, political, of power.

Txai grew up attending demonstrations, marches and participating in community work. At the age of five, she made her first public speech. “My mother had taken me to a march for the protection of indigenous children’s rights. At one point I let go of her hand and walked towards the stage. I do not remember what I said. Only the eyes of the audience fixed on me, from which they showed respect”, says the young woman, whose full name is Walelasoetxeige Paiter Bandeira Suruí. To acquire new tools for non-violent struggle, Txai decided to attend the Faculty of Law in Porto Velho. “Knowing that laws are fundamental to helping the Amazonian peoples”,  explains the first Suruí who studied at the university and who was designated, even before graduation, Kanidé coordinator. “My horizon is obviously Amazonian. Nevertheless, I always try to give a global character to our commitment. The natives of the largest rainforest on the planet, however, are not only fighting for themselves and their rights. Ours is a battle for Life. Ours, of the globe and all its inhabitants. Because killing the Amazon means condemning humanity to death”. The scientists have no doubts. Without the annual quota - between one and two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide - trapped by the jungle, there is no chance of curbing global warming and keeping the temperature rise within the 1.5 degree equilibrium threshold. This awareness, however, has so far not stopped deforestation; in fact, every day this year, an area of forest equal to a football pitch has disappeared. It is the fault of the increasingly savage and brutal exploitation, both legal and illegal, of the Amazon, encouraged by the world’s hunger for natural resources. The most effective curb to the devastation are the indigenous peoples, defined by the UN as the best guardians of the jungle. In their lands, deforestation is less than half of the rest. For this reason, Pope Francis has called them “masters” of integral ecology on more than one occasion. “For the natives, land, water, trees are not ‘raw materials’ to be turned into money. They are part of us. Thanks to this spiritual closeness to the forest, we natives have learnt to take care of it. We have been doing this for millennia. Our ancestral experience and wisdom can be put at the service of the rest of the globe to avert catastrophe, before it is too late”. To “avert the end of the world”, she said in Glasgow, paraphrasing the indigenous philosopher Ailton Krenak. In this spirit, Txai agreed to represent Amazonia at COP 26, knowing that this intervention would catapult her into the centre of global attention. For better or for worse. Her speech, delivered in fluent English, moved the world’s leaders. Many, in the days that followed, wanted to meet her, face to face. Her picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times, and for the international media she was immediately referred to, without too much imagination on their part, “the Greta of the forest”. “It was a great responsibility. To prepare for it, before I left for Glasgow, I went back to my village to listen. An authentic leader must be a spokesperson. That person does not represent themselves but carries the voice or, rather, the voices of their people. To do so, that person must have an attentive and sensitive ear”.

This woman does not have an easy life.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused her of wanting to discredit the country and immediately afterwards, Txai started receiving intimidation and insults on social networks. Then, upon her return to Rondônia, came the suspicious stalking and threatening encounters. She does not pay too much attention to it, even though she knows from first-hand and family experience that in Amazonia, words are all too often are followed by deeds. By blood. According to data collated by the Pastoral Commission of the Earth - a body close to the Brazilian Church - between 2009 and 2019, more than three hundred people were massacred in the environmental conflicts tearing apart the Southern Giant. In 2020, Brazil was the fourth deadliest country for those defending the common home, according to Global Witness, with twenty activists killed, three quarters of whom in the Amazonian territory. In the basin of the great river, the level of violence reached such an intensity that even figures considered untouchable due to their notoriety, such as the British journalist Dom Philipps and the scholar Bruno Araújo Pereira, were affected. The two, who disappeared during a mission in the Javarí Valley on June 4, were found dead eleven days later. “It is true, it is an escalation of death without end; and this fills one with sadness. At the same time, however, our ability to oppose the destruction of the forest has also grown”, says Txai. Less than two years after its foundation, the Indigenous Youth Movement of Rondônia, which she started, has gathered the support of more than 1.7 million young people. “Everywhere in the world, young people are in the line of fire for environmental protection. In Amazonia, given the dramatic situation, even more so. I am not an exception, on the contrary”, concludes the Suruí leader. “Most of the defenders of the forest are young boys and, above all, girls. The care of the land is done by female hands. I witnessed this with my own eyes at the Glasgow summit attended by the largest indigenous delegation in the history of climate conferences. Women were the majority. Who, after all, can better understand another woman than a woman?  And if the Earth is Mother, how can she not be a woman?”

by Lucia Capuzzi
A Journalist with “Avvenire”, an Italian national newspaper