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Surui partner with Google Earth to map territory

SAN FRANCISCO - In May, Chief Almir Surui of the Surui people approached the Internet giant Google and asked for high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor illegal loggers and miners on the tribe's 600,000-acre reserve in southern Brazil.

Though high-tech mapping has been used internally by Amazon people to track illegal activity and record knowledge, this will be the first time an Amazon tribe will share their own vision of their territory with the rest of the world via Google Earth, according to Vasco van Roosmalen, Brazil director for the Amazon Conservation Team, who has worked with the Surui to develop the project.

Other Amazon tribes are also interested in using Google Earth, van Roosmalen said, but are waiting to see how the Surui project works out.

''A lot of what's happening today is happening in silence - the fact that their lands are being overrun by gold miners and illegal loggers; that their leadership is in jail, receiving death threats.''

Google mapping, said van Roosmalen, gives indigenous people a tool to tell their own story to the world and to tell it in a positive light.

''What is usually mentioned in the press is the bad part: when an indigenous person breaks the law, when they have to blockade a road to stop people coming in,'' he said. ''They are not against development; they are not against people having a good life, but you don't have to cut down the forest or take away their land to reach that.''

Van Roosmalen said the team was now working with Google Earth and the Surui people to make sure that intellectual property rights are respected.

Once the project is completed later this year, a Google visitor will see an annotated and layered version of the Surui territory, created by the Surui people, using improved high-resolution satellite imagery.

It will include historical information: where first contacts were made, where they had historical battles with indigenous and non-indigenous groups and how their culture started. There will be information on where they live today, their villages and the resources that they get out of the forest that allow them to live, hunt and build shelter.

Using laptop computers, tribal members will be able to see improved satellite images of miners and loggers encroaching on their territory.

By creating Internet-accessible maps of their territory, indigenous people of the Amazon are reversing centuries of the use of mapping as colonization.

''Westerners map in three dimensions: longitude, latitude and altitude,'' said Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team in a 2006 interview with Mongabay. ''Native Amazonians,'' he said, ''think in six dimensions: longitude, latitude, altitude, historical context, sacred sites and spiritual or mythological sites, where invisible creatures mark watersheds and areas of high biodiversity as off-limits to exploitation.''

The inclusion of the original names of places will be an important aspect of the Google Earth map, said Van Roosmalen, showing ownership and knowledge of a particular territory.

In the past, the placing of names on Global Positioning System for internal tribal use has led to a rich interchange between generations, with elders sometimes spending hours telling the younger mappers the stories and moral values behind the names.

Indigenous mapping of the Amazon was inspired by the success of tribal mapping in North America, where organizations like the Aboriginal Mapping Network (www.nativemaps.org) continue to promote mapping as a tool of territorial sovereignty.

For Surui, an activist who has confronted illegal loggers and the Brazilian government over its failure to stop them, the mapping of his people's territory was a matter of life and death.

Following several death threats, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, ''I am afraid, but that won't stop me from going home to fight for what I believe in.''

Now, Surui's fight, and the story of his people, will become visible to 200 million Google Earth users around the world.

''If you look at the Surui land today in Google Earth, you'll see their 'island' of healthy green rain forest is surrounded almost completely by clear-cut, barren land,'' said Megan Quinn of Google. ''The stark contrast at their boundary is dramatic, and conveys vividly what is at stake.''