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Bows and arrows give way to tools of modernity

  • Story Highlights
  • Harris Whitbeck writes about trip with Google Earth to map a remote Amazon village
  • Project was about democratizing information and protecting Surui people
  • Tribe hope education of outsiders will help preserve their age-old way of life
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By CNN's Harris Whitbeck
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(CNN) -- It took six flights, six airports, six landing strips, each one consecutively smaller, to get me from my base in Mexico City to La Petanha, a village of about 250 people set deep in Brazil's Western Amazon.

Reporting from one of the most remote places on the planet.

Reporting from one of the most remote places on the planet.

That is just one indication of how remote this part of the world is, and how, even in the 21st century, there are still hundreds of communities that live totally cut off from the rest of civilization.

I was traveling to meet the Surui Indians Video - a tribe of 1200 people indigenous to the Amazon who until just forty years ago had never had contact with anyone outside their rainforest.

I was there to document a fascinating and historic first -- a team of volunteers and engineers from Google Earth was going to transfer technology and knowledge to the Surui to allow them access to the Internet.

The Surui had a story to tell, and they wanted the world to know it. In 1969 a Brazilian government team charged with making contact with indigenous peoples in the Amazon left a small pile of mirrors, machetes and other goods in a clearing in the western Amazon, near Brazil's border with Bolivia.

They had heard of the Surui's existence and were hoping to lure them out of the forest. The then-chief of the Surui decided it was time to make contact with the "brancos," or the white men.

Little did he know how much his tribe's life would change.

The Surui were struck by diseases previously unknown to them. Development, farming and logging began to encroach on the rainforest in which they had lived in near perfect symbiosis for centuries. They used bows and arrows to defend their land.

At one point their chief traveled to the local governor's office wielding an arrow to demand that his land be demarcated and declared officially off-limits to development.

Now nearly forty years later, that chief's son and the current leader of the Surui, Chief Amir, decided bows and arrows were no longer the most effective way to try to defend their lands.

The only Surui to graduate from university, Amir knew about the Internet and about the potential it had for effecting change. He decided to approach Google.

He knew if he could post information about his tribe and pictures of their habitat on-line, he might be able to drum up support for his cause.

Which is how I ended up with a team of volunteers from Google Earth Outreach in the Amazon. Google believes its technology can be a powerful tool for the exchange of information and dedicates some of its resources to helping non-profits around the world to learn to use it.

As Rebecca Moore the Google Outreach coordinator told me, "it's about democratizing information. I think of Google Earth as a new digital story telling medium. You can create a narrative of your story in the context of the real Earth. Our imagery is so vivid, the 3D topography is so accurate. It's much more impactful."

So will Google Earth put hardworking journalists like me out of a job? After all, what they attempt to do is put the power of story-telling directly in the hands of the people originating those stories.

I asked Rebecca and she assured me I could breathe easy.
"There will always be a role for the editorial, the curated, we call it, content of someone like a journalists but this is complementing that," she said.

By the time the Google team completed its work with the Surui, it had trained twenty young Indians in using computers to post content on Google Earth.

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They will now begin posting their own content on the Internet. They will interview their elders about their way of life. They will photograph their forest and document how they live off of it and how it is being threatened. They will use 21st-century technology to defend an ages-old way of life that preserved a perfect balance between man and nature.

The bows and arrows of the past have given way to the tools of modernity.

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