Latin America


Finally this hour, we head to the heart of the Amazon, in western Brazil.

As recently as the 1960s, an Indian tribe called the Surui lived a Stone Age existence there. They wore loincloths and hunted monkeys with bow and arrow. Well, today, the Surui are a tech-savvy community that uses smartphones to monitor illegal logging and Google Earth Outreach to show the world what their reserve is like.

NPR's Juan Forero has the story of how their chief helped save the tribe by building alliances with American tech companies.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Almir Surui and two other Indians use machetes to hack through the brush at the Seventh of September Reserve here in far western Brazil, a swath of forest the size of Rhode Island. It's a bewilderingly diverse stretch of jungle, a land rich in animal life, like tapirs and monkeys. There are many species of trees and lots of birdlife, from woodpeckers to parrots to eagles.

Standing in the middle of it all, Almir, actually Chief Almir, who's 38 and the leader of the Surui people, looks up into the trees.

CHIEF ALMIR SURUI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The forest has much to offer, he says, products like nuts, wood, if the logging is well-regulated and the forest pumps and protects water. And without that, Chief Almir asks, what would we drink? Chief Almir doesn't just pose those kinds of questions to visitors, but rather, he travels to tell it to statesmen and Wall Street financiers, tech company executives and environmental activists. Barely four decades ago, the Surui was an uncontacted tribe. That is they'd never had any sustained contact with modern Brazil. Then came the road building crews and settlers, loggers and Brazil's government. It changed their lives forever, says Jose Itabira Surui, who's Chief Almir's uncle.

JOSE ITABIRA SURUI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: They almost destroyed the Surui people, Jose Surui says. The settlers killed Indians and so did disease. A tribe with 5,000 members bottomed out at 300. But the tribe still had some elders, and they fostered a younger generation of leaders.

The first to go to college was Almir in the early '90s. He returned knowledgeable about technology and also convinced that the Surui had to find partners to save themselves.

REBECCA MOORE: Very savvy.


MOORE: I've never seen anyone who could say no to him.

FORERO: Rebecca Moore, of Google, has been among the first to come on board back in 2007. She recalled how Chief Almir told Google executives that his father's way of defending the Surui was obsolete.

MOORE: He realized that the time had come, he said, to put down the bow and arrow and pick up the laptop that that was the future for defending their territory and strengthening their tribe. How could you say no?


FORERO: These days, a slick film made by the Surui appears on Google Earth Outreach.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The cultural map is going to become a new digital way to share their culture, their story.

FORERO: The Surui put together a 3-D mapping project that shows off old battle sites, animal breeding areas, burial grounds and hamlets. Surui rangers film illegal logging with Android phones and then upload it to the Web, and they use global positioning devices to map territory, Chief Almir says.

ALMIR SURUI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The idea is to generate information about the Surui, who they are and the problems they face. The tribe's main goal now is a carbon credit program in which developing countries would pay the Surui to keep the forest intact and thus offset their own carbon emissions. It's still a work in progress, but environmentalists and some in the business world believe such a system could help end large-scale forest destruction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: These days, the Surui population is now 1,200, and Surui hamlets, like the one where Chief Almir lives, bustle with activity. Girls get together to carve jewelry. The men use their free time to play dominoes.

The tribe has three computer centers where their people can surf the Web, and then there are the bows and arrows. In a field, Chief Almir fires an arrow and hits his target, a banana tree, from 30 feet away.

ALMIR SURUI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The chief celebrates, noting that a foreign reporter was there to see it, and then he goes back to work, developing what he says is a 50-year plan for the Surui.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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