Using the Internet to Save the Rainforest: How an Amazonian Tribe Is Mastering the Modern World

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

The Surui people from the Brazilian rainforest are fighting to stop the destruction of their homeland. But instead of bows and arrows, they are using the Internet, GPS and Google Earth. Next they plan to start carbon emissions trading.

Photo Gallery: Internet Indians Photos
Juliane von Mittelstaedt / DER SPIEGEL

Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui spins the globe in front of him past Copenhagen, Bristol, and Washington. He loves playing on Google Earth, and hopping from one continent to another. It's become something of an addiction. I ask him what interests him about Bristol. "I don't know," he replies. "I'm just looking." The virtual Earth in front of him continues turning, and finally reaches Brazil, and here the 35-year-old chief, who was born on the floor of a hut in the rainforest, zooms in on a large green triangle surrounded by brown, the outlines sharp as if drawn with a ruler.

"This is our land: 2,428 square kilometers of rainforest," he says. Almost three times the size of New York city, the wedge of forest is home to the 1,300 members of the Surui tribe, one of several thousand indigenous groups living in Brazil. The land is called Terra Indígena Sete de Setembro, named after the day the world of the white man first encroached upon that of the Surui: September 7, 1969. This first contact -- which is still referred to as "contato" -- proved devastating, slashing the population from 5,000 to just 250 through the combined ravages of hunger, civilization, and above all chicken pox. Before modernity burst into their lives, the Surui had remained within the confines of their reservation, and had practically never left the forest.

Forty-one years later, Chief Almir sits in a light green house at the site of that first contact. Today it is a suburb of the town of Cacoal on Highway BR-364 in the northwestern Brazilian state of Rondônia. The chief is a short, stocky man with small, lively eyes set in a head that rests like a boulder between his shoulders. In front of him sits a black miniature notebook. Behind him, on the wall, hangs an arrow decorated with feathers.

Internet, Google Earth, GPS

It is from here that he wages his battle against the deforestation of his homeland. His weapons of choice are the Internet, Google Earth, and GPS. He talks about satellite images, about the million trees he intends to plant, and the 16.4 million tons of carbon dioxide he wants to sell on the global emissions market.

The Surui will be soon be one of the first indigenous peoples that will be paid by the world to preserve its forest. They are being advised by investment bankers, lawyers, and managers. But the decisions will be all their own, taken at a gathering of 1,300 native Indios. Almir Surui believes his people need modernity to help them maintain their traditional way of life, that this is the only way they can save their forest, their culture, and their tribe. But because it is an experiment, the outcome is uncertain -- for both the Surui and the rest of the world.

The Amazon Basin contains 40 percent of the world's tropical rainforests. It is the Amazon which will first show whether the battle against deforestation and climate change can be won. And also what will happen if it is lost.

Just last year, 130,000 square kilometers of forest was cut down or burnt, at least 10,000 square kilometers of this in Brazil. That may be the lowest figure in decades, but it's still too much. Twenty percent of the Amazon rainforest has already disappeared. The same amount has been damaged. On a purely proportional scale, the greatest amount of forest has been lost in the state of Rondônia.

At Loggerheads with the Loggers

The Sete de Setembro reservation survived as a green wedge hemmed in by farms, villages, and roads. It survived because the Surui drove away settlers and loggers alike, strung iron chains across the roads, and moved their villages to better prevent encroachment into their reservation. But 2,428 square kilometers is too vast an area for 1,300 Indios to be able to guard constantly. The Surui lost 7 percent of their forest, but have saved 93 percent. Their's is the last area of forest in this part of Rondônia, in which 4,000 people still live off the logging industry.

"But let us start at the beginning," the chief says. "Let's drive to Lapetanha."

We get into his pickup truck and he drives past gas stations, scrap yards, and hotels that let rooms by the hour. Eventually we see fields of soy beans, banana plantations, and black-and-white Friesian cows standing in fields full of charred tree stumps. "All this was once our land," he says modestly and quietly in soft Portuguese. He can't remember what it used to look like. After all, the forest was already gone when he left his village for the first time at the age of 14. Nor can he remember much about the fighting or his father, who helped drive the settlers out of the reservation -- he armed with a bow and arrow, they with guns. "I just remember the fear," Almir Surui says.

The fear is all that remains. People standing by the roadside stare as Almir's car drives past, and they look increasingly hostile the closer we get to the reservation. Many of them are loggers who used to live in the reservation. Three years ago the loggers and sawmill owners put a $100,000 bounty on his head, and the chief was forced to flee to the US.

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Map: The Surui in Brazil Zoom
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Map: The Surui in Brazil



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