Tribe teams with Google to make stand in Amazon
James Temple, Chronicle Staff Writer
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 plight.
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 globe.
"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.
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 Team.
Since 1970, more than 232,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest have disappeared, nearly the size of Texas, according to environmental site Mongabay.com. 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 sfgate.com/blogs/tech.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle