Google Earth Helping Amazon Tribe to Preserve Their Forest and Their Culture

surui cultural mapGoogle Earth/Screen capture

At the UN Rio+20 conference this week, Google revealed their first cultural map for Google Earth. The result of a five-year project with Brazil's Surui tribe, the map consists of a collection of pictures, videos and 3-D visualizations mapping the cultural history and biodiversity of the 600,000-acre Surui territory. The map is part of a larger project with the Surui people to document and preserve their forests and culture.

"We really believe that this is ground-breaking, ground-breaking for Google," said Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager of Google Earth Engine and Earth Outreach. "The Surui people and Google worked together to bring the story of the forest to the global community."

Surui Chief Almir approached Google with the idea of the map on a visit to the U.S. in 2007. Since then his tribe has been given training on how to use the mapping technology to share geo-tagged images of the plants and animals that makes up their land as well as their tribe's historic sites.

Google provided the 1,300-member tribe with Android smartphones to monitor the forests and denounce illegal logging around their territory. The people are using the Open Data Kit in Android to monitor the forest's borders and biodiversity, and with all that data they've been able to setup the first internationally validated carbon project in the Amazon.

When the tribe had its first encounter with the outside world in 1969, the forest all around its territory was lush and dense, now, as you can see as you fly over it in Google Earth, the Surui territory stands out as an island of dark green in a sea of logging operations. The Google Outreach project will document the planting of 7,000 hectares of forest that have been lost to illegal logging.

Google made the short film Trading Bows and Arrows with Laptops: Carbon and Culture, below, to tell the story of how this project came about.

As the film highlights, the Surui tribe reached a point where they realized that technology was a far more powerful way to defend themselves against illegal logging than trying to physically defend their borders with bows and arrows. Not only do the smartphones allow them to immediately report illegal logging and keep a current record of the health of their forests, but the cultural map also allows them to spread awareness of their culture and the biodiversity of their land and the encroaching logging that threatens it.

"All the information is shedding light on the invasion of our land ... and giving our people the responsibility for their own future," Chief Almir told the San Francisco Chronicle.

They say we can only protect what we know exists, so using technology to bring these cultural maps in front of people around the world gives tribes like the Surui and the wildlife of the Amazon a fighting chance. Luckily, Google has plans to arm other tribes with these cultural mapping tools in the very near future.

"It has taken us five years (to launch) the first cultural map with the Surui and now we feel we have the methodology that can work with other tribes," Moore said. "There's a project already planned for two tribes who are neighbors of the Surui and the Surui themselves would be trainers of this technology."

You can get the map through Google Earth or through the tribe's website

Google Earth Helping Amazon Tribe to Preserve Their Forest and Their Culture
Google's first cultural map arms the Surui tribe with technological tools to fight illegal logging and document and protect their culture.

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