Chief Almir: Ragogmakan to Save the Surui

Photo from Fast Company

The conversation about the effect of technology and the digital age on historic cultures, the emphasis is usually on the negative.  The internet, television, and other forms of mass media are blamed for the homogenization of culture and identity, and eroding regional identity.  Information is a powerful but ambivalent tool, creating both positive and negative effects, and can be used as such.  One of the most amazing and examples that I have seen of the power of information, and more specifically, geospatial, video, storytelling, tagging, and telecommunications, is the use by the Surui people of the Amazon to protect their culture and way of life.  The Surui were first officially contacted by the outside world in 1969, and soon after were the target of exploitation by lumber companies who started to illegally log their land.  Chief Almir, who became the tribe’s leader at the age of 17, was the first of his people to attend college, and by chance came across the Google Earth project in 2007, was able to contact Google, and set up a collaboration where Google came and taught them how to document the history and important geographic locations of their people.

Photo from Fast Company

1969, shortly before Almir was born, the tribe had its first contact with outsiders, who brought disease, violence, and death with them. Then loggers arrived, laying waste to the Surui’s homeland. Chief Almir decided survival depended on outreach. His partnership with Google, which began in 2007, has enabled the tribe to create an online “cultural map” of the Surui with stories from the tribe’s elders that are uploaded onto YouTube, as well as a geographical map of their territory created with GPS — equipped smartphones from Google. In 2009, Google employees taught the Surui to use cell phones to record illegal logging on their land. Tribal members can now take photos and videos that are geo-tagged and immediately upload the images to Google Earth. Law-enforcement officials can no longer claim ignorance of the problem when evidence of the deforestation is publicly available online.

The amazing work that Chief Almir has done to use technology to help protect and preserve the culture of his people has earned him international recognition, including his inclusion on Fast Company’s The 100 Most Creative in Business 2011.

If you are interested in watching a longer video about Chief Almir and the Surui, below is footage from Almir talking at the Google European Zeitgeist conference in 2009.

It is wonderful to see the incorporation of technology into a previously isolated culture, and not seeing it just destroy it.  It seems that they have fully embraced technology as a tool, even creating a word in their language for Google, “ragogmakan”, which translates as “the messenger”.

Photo from Fast Company

Photo from Fast Company

Photo from Fast Company

The Surui are also able to use their newly developed international connectivity to help with their forestry stewardship.

The Surui aim to plant 1 million saplings within the next decade. They hope to raise millions through a UN deal that gives carbon credits, which can be traded for cash, to countries and tribes that maintain their forests. The money would fund new homes, a hospital, school, and pension plan.

In fact, if you are interested in helping, you are able to donate money to help the Surui plant trees, and in general follow the progress that they make as they work to protect their indigenous forests.

Photo from Fast Company

Photo from Fast Company

Photo from Fast Company

Though it is probably not a question among most of the readers of D-Build, this does drive home the importance of not purchasing illegally logged timber, and the positive effects of using reclaimed or certified lumber instead.  Beyond just using technology, and its ability to show pictorial and video evidence of illegal logging, time and location stamped, it is that they are using storytelling, using the tools to record and share their history.  It is not an outside group, coming and recording what they deem significant and valuable, but the Surui themselves, documenting what they feel should exist as a testament to their people.  This is how technology should be used, as a tool to harness the power of information for positive gains, instead of as an exploitive force to distract or overwhelm.

Via Fast Company

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