Using the Internet to Save the Rainforest

Lost Harmony

This other world begins at the end of the fields where the forest suddenly grows dense again. Only a narrow track leads to the village comprising a few huts, a school, a church, three computers, and 102 inhabitants. Almir Surui parks his pickup outside the wooden house of his parents. Marimop, his 87-year-old father, is lying in a hammock wearing a green crepe shirt and orange shorts. His mother is squatting on the ground drilling holes in an armadillo shell.

Both have two blue lines across their face. Almir's father explains that it is the symbol of the Surui, and that all men and women used to have this tattoo. "But young people don't want that anymore." I ask him what has changed since his people were involuntarily connected to the outside world. "The spirits used to keep the forest and the weather in harmony," the old man explains. "But the spirits are no longer what they used to be in the time of great tranquility." In other words, before 1969.

The loss of tranquility was accompanied by a loss of tradition, primarily pride. Outsiders sneered that the Surui were stupid and indolent, and they became embarrassed to call themselves indigenous people. Since then they have been at pains to appear as Brazilian as possible. Whenever they travel to the city, they wear carefully ironed shirts and meticulously polished shoes. Those who can afford to tile their terrace. A handful even own a car. And the most important person in the village is no longer the shaman, but a man from Germany. Every Wednesday, the missionary comes to the village to preach -- though mostly about the Apocalypse and Genesis because little else has been translated.

Looking at the chief sitting between his parents, you can imagine what a huge leap he must have taken to venture out into the other, alien world. Almir was the first Surui to go to college. He studied biology in GoiĆ¢na, a city of 1.2 million inhabitants, where fellow students ignored him because he didn't talk, look or eat like they did. Almir only ate soft-boiled meat, preferably pork, and no vegetables or sauce. Although the Surui have adapted in many ways, their nutritional habits have not changed.

Technology and Tradition

The young Surui therefore sought refuge in the Internet and joined the battle against the World Bank and its Planafloro development project, which envisaged building new roads, dams and settlements on Indio land, but ignored the country's indigenous people. The Indios took on the World Bank -- and won. When the chief returned to his village, he brought with him a computer and an idea: that the Surui's only hope for survival lay in combining the two worlds of technology and tradition. It was the dawn of a new era.

Almir's father still hunts with a bow and arrow, while Almir now has an iPhone. "I revere modern technology," he says. It sounds like a profession of faith. Although he can get no reception, he holds his iPhone in his hand, and won't let go. He glances at the unresponsive screen, yearning to check his e-mail, surf the Internet and Google his own name, which he often does whenever he is bored. Yesterday he generated 49,600 hits. That gives him hope, he says, because you don't disappear so quickly if you have 49,600 hits. He has five different e-mail addresses, and 324 friends on Facebook. One of them is fellow Amerindian Evo Morales, the Bolivian president.

Almir Surui, the Indio from the Amazon rainforest, is now famous.

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