Tribe teams with Google to make stand in Amazon

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The chief of an endangered Amazon tribe will unveil today the product
of an unusual partnership with Google Inc. that pairs high tech with
indigenous knowledge in an effort to rescue ancient rain forests and a
dying culture.

Almir Surui, speaking at the 20th annual Bioneers Conference in San
Rafael, plans to showcase Google Earth images years in the making that
throw into sharp relief the rapid encroachment of illegal mining and
logging onto his people's 600,000-acre reserve.

The data-rich maps include layers of videos, pictures, text and
historical markers gathered by tribe members. It promises to underscore
the importance of the land and propel the Surui people's efforts to
become self-sufficient.

"Right now, under current development models, a standing forest is
always worth less than its extractable parts," Chief Almir, 35, a
stocky man with a bulldog head crowned by a feathered Amazon headdress,
said through an interpreter.

"Forests are very important for the welfare of the indigenous people
and for the world," he said. "We want to show concretely, practically
that you can have quality of life and economic development, with an
intact forest."

The Google Earth updates will become viewable later this week.

The 1,300-member Surui tribe was 5,000 strong in the late 1960s,
when it first came into contact with outsiders as construction began on
the BR-364 highway through nearby Cacoal, Brazil, about 125 miles from
the northwest border of Bolivia. The ensuing decades brought disease,
crushing poverty and continual clashes with plunderers.

The Brazilian Constitution grants indigenous tribes the right to
their traditional lands, but the government hasn't backed the policy
with the necessary resources to halt the incursions, environmental
groups allege.

11 chiefs shot, killed

Eleven chiefs of Surui and neighboring tribes have been shot and
killed this decade, deaths members attribute to loggers and miners and
see as clear warnings for others who would obstruct their efforts.
Almir, an outspoken activist for nearly two decades and the first
member of his tribe to graduate from college, has been cautioned
there's a $100,000 bounty on his head.

Amazon Conservation Team of Arlington, Va., which funded and
provided technical equipment for the mapping project, evacuated Almir
to the United States for his safety in 2006. The following year, they
took him to Silicon Valley to appeal directly to Google for help.

Almir had discovered Google Earth in an Internet cafe and, like most
people, began by zooming in for a bird's-eye view of his own home. He
saw a green peninsula dangling into a sea of clear-cutting, a striking
juxtaposition that he believed could awaken the world to the Surui's

Employing technology

He pleaded his case to members of Google Earth Outreach, the
philanthropic arm of the Mountain View search company's satellite
imaging division. It had previously partnered with the U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum to pinpoint ravaged villages in Darfur, Sudan and with
the United Nations Environment Programme to highlight receding
glaciers, deforestation and other environmental hot spots around the

"He seemed to have a very clear sense of the appropriate use of
technology for indigenous people to help them bridge that gap from
their traditional ways to engaging with the modern world," said Rebecca
Moore, manager of Google Earth Outreach. "We thought it would make
sense for us to help."

The company agreed to provide high resolution satellite images of
the region and train the Surui people to survey their lands and
document their culture, using tools like Google Earth, Google Maps,
Blogger and YouTube. They're in the process of providing mobile phones
with Google's Android operating system that include new software to
automatically tag photographs with locational information and upload to
Google Earth.

Ethnographic mapping

The tribe adopted Amazon Conservation Team's methodology for
so-called ethnographic mapping, which has been used to chart more than
40 million acres of rain forest. Members interviewed their elders,
photographed their territory, and plotted out more than 2,000 important
sites using GPS tools, including: ceremonial lands, hunting grounds,
fishing spots and stands of the three tree types necessary to make
their arrows.

"It shows how they use the land, their history on the land, the
stories related to each point and also the spiritual side," said Vasco
van Roosmalen, Brazil director for the Amazon Conservation Team.

All the data have been embedded into the Google Earth images that
Chief Almir will unveil today, and will continue to be updated in the
years ahead. The overarching hope is that stark pictures of
deforestation's devastation will grab the world's attention and enlist
new allies in the Surui's struggles.

Texas-size swath gone

To the extent that the project saves the Surui, it also helps
preserve the rain forest, a critical factor in the battle against
global warming, said Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation

Since 1970, more than 232,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest
have disappeared, nearly the size of Texas, according to environmental
site Another 3,860 square miles of rain forest is
expected to be destroyed this year. With it goes incalculable
biodiversity, cultural diversity, and one of the most effective
counterweights to climate change.

Google Earth's high-quality satellite images make it easier to
monitor and defend the land from loggers and miners. Over time, it can
also track positive developments, including the preservation of
threatened rain forest and the ambitious plan to replant 7,000 hectares
of trees. This "Surui carbon project" could funnel money to the tribe
through global cap and trade programs. It's one plank in Almir's
"50-year plan" to help the Surui people become financially
self-sufficient, engaging with the outside world without relinquishing
their identity or exhausting their resources.

Other tribes seek help

Time and again, the best defense against deforestation in the
massive, unmonitored Amazon jungles has proven to be native people
willing to stand their ground, Plotkin said.

"If you don't have Indians, you don't have rain forests - and vice versa," he said.

As word spreads about the Surui project, Google has engaged in
similar discussions with indigenous tribes around the world, including
the Mâori of New Zealand, the First Nations in Canada and the Masai of
East Africa. The company is already working with other native Amazon
groups on mapping projects.

"We see this as a model," Moore said. "Many of these tribes have
similar interests and challenges and goals, in terms of wanting to tell
the world their story.

"I sometimes think people are more aware of polar bears under threat than entire tribes," she said.

For more about the history of the Surui people and Chief Almir's visit to San Francisco, go to

Chronicle staff writer Jack Epstein contributed to this report. E-mail James Temple at