You may know it as Google, but in bamboo-and-thatch roundhouses deep in the Amazon rainforest the iconic brand goes by another name. The Surui people, one of the most remote on Earth, call it ragogmakan – “messenger” – and they’re banking on the search engine to save them and their ancestral lands from extinction.
The tribe – whose first contact with the modern world was less than 40 years ago – are replacing their bows and arrows with hi-tech gadgets in their battle for survival. They have already begun using satnav on their traditional trails through the trees. And Google Earth has just agreed to provide high-resolution satellite images of their forest home.
The initiative is the brainchild of their chief, Almir Narayamoga Surui, who is leading their struggle against illegal loggers besieging their territory, an isolated 600,000-acre green oasis in Rondonia, in the wild Brazilian west. Last year the 34-year-old Almir visited Google near San Francisco to ask it to help monitor the loggers’ incursions.
He said he also hoped to be able to use the internet firm to “alert the world”. He added: “We call Google ragogmakan because we hope it will help us get our message out.”
For countless centuries the nomadic people – who call themselves Paiter, meaning simply “we ourselves” – lived far from the outside world, until the official “first contact” with Brazilian authorities on 7 September 1969, national Independence Day.
“The date that Brazil became independent was the day our independence ended,” Almir says. “Our people were very, very scared when they first saw white men.”
A warrior people (Surui, the name bestowed on them by outsiders, means “enemy”), they decided to fight.
“We thought we could beat them with bows and arrows,” says Almir. “But it didn’t work.” The Surui were reduced from 5,000 to just 250 people by massacres and diseases such as chicken pox, measles, tuberculosis and flu, to which they had no immunity.
“The survivors were so weak from disease that they did not have the strength to bury their dead. So we went to Plan B, a peace plan.”
Did that work?
“In terms of absolute survival, yes. Other tribes in Rondonia completely disappeared.”
They got medical help, but lost half their land, and only got the remainder protected after a prominent Surui drew an arrow on a leading Brazilian senator in his office and demanded official demarcation. The land is still under constant attack. Almir says that 300 sawmills, employing 4,000 people, surround it and other Indian reserves in the area. Eleven local chiefs have been killed trying to protect their land, and he himself has a £50,000 price on his head.
He cottoned on to cyberspace when first trying out Google Earth and – like almost everyone – immediately searched for where he lived. He saw clear signs of logging, and realised he could enlist an eye in the sky.
With the help of the US-based Amazon Conservation Team he has been training his people in IT. They use satnav not to find their way around the jungle they know so well, but to enable them to record the co-ordinates of any logging they find so that they can report it.
And Almir envisages the Surui with solar-powered laptops using Google to download information and to tell the world how their forest is much more valuable if left standing.