Using the Internet to Save the Rainforest

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. And 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.

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