Using the Internet to Save the Rainforest

They shot a video for YouTube, built a website and learnt the meaning of words like "blog", "overlay", and "3D". They even invented a word for Google in their own language, Tupi-Monde: "ragogmakan." It translates literally as the messenger, because Google carries the message of the Surui and their plan out into the world.

Scanning Googles for Intruders

The chief hopes to fully digitize the reservation one day. They're already working on the first step: They want to integrate a self-produced map of their forest into Google Earth, where people will be able to consult photos, take a virtual flight over the reservation, and watch videos of the tribal elders talking about their traditions. Meanwhile in a palm-leaf hut down on the forest floor, Surui will sit at computers scanning high-resolution satellite images of their forest inch by inch to detect intruders, pictures that the Chinese-Brazilian CBERS III satellite will soon be supplying.

Until then, they must make do with satellite pictures on Google Earth. Despite their poor resolution, the pictures were good enough to identify dozens of places in which wood poachers and gold prospectors have penetrated and been driven out again. Many tons of wood have been confiscated. It has been a taste of things to come, of the future that will hopefully come in October when the Surui will engage in global emissions trading.

Almir Surui first heard the term REDD -- or "retchy", as he pronounces it -- three years ago. The acronym stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. He discovered that forests trap carbon dioxide, and companies around the globe are willing to pay a lot of money to have the trees soak up carbon dioxide on their behalf. They don't pay for a forest that is merely in existence, but rather for preventing its destruction.

Forest Could Vanish by 2100

The Surui therefore commissioned a simulation of what would happen if they didn't protect their reservation: The "business as usual scenario", to use the REDD jargon. For the Surui, business as usual would mean that 30 percent of their forest would disappear in the space of 50 years. By the end of the century it could all be gone.

Swinging in his hammock gnawing on a peccary rib, Almir Surui throws out a huge figure: $120 million (€99.6 million). That's the price of protecting his forests for 44 years and thus preventing 16,475,469 tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. The possible purchasers of such "credits" are companies willing to voluntarily trade in emissions, but also investment banks, brokers, and even governments. The US state of California would be one such candidate because it has pledged to reduce its CO2 output.

The Indio chief is well aware of the criticism of REDD. Critics say it is too complicated, that Mother Nature should not be steered by the logic of the money markets, that too much money is lost in transaction fees. Moreover it is far from certain that REDD will really help protect the environment.

Nevertheless if everything goes to plan, REDD could restore some of the indigenous peoples of Brazil's lost pride and make the world take them seriously. The Surui could become a model for how Amerindians could live off and in harmony with their forest.

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