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Can Google Earth save an indigenous tribe with maps?

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google earth deforestation indigenous surui tribe brazil amazonWhen Chief Almir first accessed Google Earth, he did what many others do and scrolled over the map to find his home. His home, however, happens to be a nominally protected swath of forest in the rapidly diminishing Amazonian rainforest. After seeing the tenuous state of his people's historic lands from on high, Almir, who leads the Surui tribe in western Brazil, enlisted the help of the search engine giant to raise awareness about the nearby illegal logging and mining that threatens his group's way of life, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday.


Using a technology-rich form of ethnographic mapping, a philanthropic side of the Moutain View, Calif.–based company, Google Earth Outreach embarked on a collaboration with Almir and the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team to keep tabs on nearby clear-cutting while recording aspects of the tribe's land and daily life in hopes of drawing attention to their struggle.


"We want to show concretely, practically that you can have a quality of life and economic development in an intact forest," Almir told the Chronicle through an interpreter. Aside from assaults on their land, the tribe has faced direct violence from loggers and miners. Almir himself has been seeking shelter in the U.S. from a reported $100,000-bounty out for him.


The new Google Earth content includes images and video about the tribe's daily life, which depends largely on the preservation of the 6,000-acre reserve on which they live. "It shows how they use the land, their history on the land, the stories related to each point," Vasco van Roosmalen, the Brazil director for the Amazon Conservation Team, told the Chronicle.


Google Earth Outreach, which has helped other nonprofits map everything from climate change effects to the crisis in Darfur, saw the proposal from Almir as a chance to match on-the-ground multimedia content with detailed satellite information. "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," Rebecca Moore, head of Google Earth Outreach, told the paper.


In 1969, when the Surui first came into contact with Brazilian authorities, there were about 5,000 in the tribe. Today the numbers have reached about 1,300, up from a low of 250 after massacres and illnesses had taken an immense toll, London's The Independent reported last year. 


Google is now in talks with other tribes around the world to try to develop similar content. "We see this as a model," Moore told the Chronicle. "I sometimes think people are more aware of polar bears under threat than entire tribes."


Image of satellite view of deforestation in the Brazilian state of Rondonia, which is the same state in which the Surui tribe's reserve is located, courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon via Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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