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Google goes to the Amazon

Last month, a group of Googlers traveled to Brazil, to conduct our first-ever project in the Amazon. Organized by our Google Earth Outreach team, we went at the special invitation of Amazon Chief Almir Naramayoga Surui, who'd invited us down to train his people on using Google Earth, YouTube, blogs and other Internet tools in order to preserve their history and culture, protect their rainforest, and create a sustainable future for their tribe.

This was an unusual request, especially because until recently, the Surui Indians used stone tools and hunted and fished with bows and arrows. But as we considered this request, we realized that it was very much within the mission of Google Earth Outreach, which helps people around the world learn how to use Google Earth and Maps for public benefit. We had previously collaborated with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to map destroyed villages in Darfur, with UNHCR to show "A Refugee's Life", with Appalachian Voices to illustrate mountaintop removal coal-mining, and with the Jane Goodall Institute to follow chimpanzees in Tanzania. Maybe, we thought, it was time to go to the Amazon.

"New Technologies and Indigenous Peoples" - the logo
created by the Surui for our partnership

We learned from Chief Almir that just as the Amazon rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate, so too are the indigenous peoples who live there. This loss of biological and cultural diversity, of natural resources, habitats and human beings, has profound consequences both locally and globally. Al Gore has called the Amazon rainforest "the lungs of the planet" for the vital role it plays in consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen for all of us to breathe. Chief Almir explained that his tribe had already begun replanting thousands of hectares of their forest which had been illegally logged by outsiders. He hopes that through this project, they will be able to participate in the emerging carbon offset marketplace. And he wants to use Google Earth, YouTube and blogs to give the world a virtual tour of these projects, to raise awareness, and educate other tribes in how to do the same thing.

So we spent several months preparing special training materials. We partnered closely with the Amazon Conservation Team, who'd previously taught the Surui how to GPS-locate their significant sites that the Surui now wanted to map in full 3D, in Google Earth. Along the way, we found that many people asked us these questions: "So why is Google going to the Amazon?" "Why are you trying to train Indians?" "Won't technology harm their culture?" "Are Amazon Indians even capable of learning to use the Internet?"

Without giving away too much of the story, the answer to the last question is YES. During the trainings, we were moved to see how committed the young Surui students were to learning everything they possibly could. Their first two web searches were "Povos Indigenas do Brasil" (Indigenous peoples of Brazil) and "Desmatamento Amazonia" (Deforestation of the Amazon). They succeeded in importing their cultural map into Google Earth (see image), as the starting point for their virtual tour. They showed their warrior spirit in their very first YouTube video. They began building a Google Site. All of these are now works in progress, and when they are ready to release to the world, we expect that they will be unlike anything anyone has seen before.

The Surui call Google "ragogmakan", or "messenger", because they are using our tools to get their message out. Although we traveled to the Amazon rain forest expecting to be the teachers, there are lessons for all of us in the story of the Surui. As they engage with the modern world, they are making choices about what to adopt, adapt or reject. If we pay attention, we may have as much to learn from them as they from us.

Read more on the Lat Long blog, and experience the story of our trip on the Google Earth Outreach site.

Surui cultural map

Posted by Rebecca Moore, Manager, Google Earth Outreach

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