The Surui of Brazil are using an unexpected new tool to fight illegal logging: Google Earth.

It has taken five years of work, but a collaboration between Google and the Surui people of Rondonia, Brazil has yielded an interactive cultural map that highlights the biodiversity and history of the Surui territory, which spans over 600,000 acres. The idea was to equip the Surui with technology in the form of Android smartphones that help them immediately report illegal logging as well as monitor biodiversity and the forest's health, in the context of the climate crisis. Surui Chief Almir, who proposed the idea of the cultural map to Google in 2007, also sees his people's adoption of technology as a defensive measure to raise awareness in the developed world of the Surui's plight. In his own words, the Surui intend "to communicate and create a dialogue with the world."

Almir, the first Surui to graduate from college, also states that "all the information is shedding light on the invasion of our land … and giving our people the responsibility for their own future." Indeed, members of the Surui tribe have received training by scientists from Google Earth Outreach and they have been able to set up the first internationally validated carbon project in the Amazon.

The Surui have been in this fight for decades. Upon first contact with white settlers in 1969, over 90% of the tribe's original population of 5000 died due to diseases introduced by the settlers. In the late 80s, settlers exploited them for wood, paying far less than market value and introducing wealth inequality into Surui society for the first time. During the last two decades, the Surui have worked with local environmental organizations to free themselves from dependence on loggers and end deforestation. Covered mostly by the Amazon rainforest, 60% of Rondonia has been deforested since the 1970s. Despite this fact, 97% of the Surui land in the state still remains intact. Even with this success, the situation remains volatile as loggers have allegedly offered Surui youths $100,000 to kill Almir for his efforts to protect the forest.

Perhaps it is too early to suggest that the Surui put down their bows and arrows just yet, but creative collaborations with supporters in the developed world might prove indispensable in educating the urban global community about the importance of preserving undeveloped regions and indigenous ways of life.

Finally, here's a video that Google released documenting the process of working on the Surui Cultural Map.


Image by Banco de Imágenes Geológicas on Flickr, showing massive deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil. Courtesy of a Creative Commons license.