On a recent afternoon deep in the Amazon’s rain forest, members of the Surui tribe, which made contact with the outside world less than 40 years ago, could not resist that urge well-known to modern man — they Googled themselves.
Then they looked up football.
Computers with an Internet connection, video cameras, Global Positioning System devices and other high-tech gadgets are replacing bows and arrows in the small indigenous village about 1,600 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, which has teamed up with Google Earth to help protect its 600,000-acre reserve from illegal miners and loggers.
“Since the Surui and other indigenous people were given training tools by Google, our land has received more visibility,” Chief Almir Surui said in an e-mail written in Portuguese. Surui is both the common surname and the name of the tribe. “All the information is shedding light on the invasion of our land … and giving our people the responsibility for their own future.”
The collaboration between the Mountain View, Calif., high-tech giant and one of the most remote tribes in the world is the brainchild of Almir, the first Surui to graduate from college, who traveled to California’s Bay Area last year. During his visit, Almir met with officials at Google Earth, asking them to provide high-quality satellite imagery that would allow the tribe to monitor illegal loggers and raise global awareness about the destruction of the rain forest.
Last month, a small group of scientists from Google Earth Outreach, the company’s philanthropic arm, traveled to Brazil to conduct a crash course for the Surui people on how to surf the Web and use map data, YouTube and blogs.
Now, armed with the satellite imagery, videos and photos, the Surui people hope to tell stories about their culture, history and traditions through the virtual world of Google Earth. The maps will also provide updates on the planned reforestation project of the 17,300 acres the tribe has lost to illegal logging.
Though the project is still in the initial stages, once the Surui are done, “it will be a very rich layer unlike anything anyone has ever seen before,” said Rebecca Moore, project manager at Google Earth Outreach.
“We traveled to the Amazon rain forest expecting to be the teachers,” Moore said. “But the story of the Surui as they engage with the modern world holds lessons for all of us, and if we pay attention, we may have more to learn from them than they from us.”
Since the Surui tribe made its first contact with civilization in 1969 during the construction of the 2,000-mile Trans-Amazon Highway, it has been fighting for its survival, with various diseases devastating its population. While the Brazilian constitution guarantees indigenous tribes the right to live on their lands, the government lacks resources to protect them from illegal loggers and ranchers.
The technology is helping the tribe fight back.