June 19, 2007 in Business

Google Earth may help nab illegal loggers

Alan Clendenning Associated Press
 

Eye in the sky

Google Earth has been called on before for humanitarian purposes. Other projects include:

•An initiative with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to call attention to atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan.

•An effort with the United Nations Environmental Program to show users areas of environmental destruction.

•A partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute to highlight its research on chimpanzees and African deforestation.

SAO PAULO, Brazil – A Brazilian Indian tribe is linking up with Google Earth to try to capture vivid images that could help stop loggers and miners from deforesting the jungle and digging for gold on its vast Amazon reservation.

Though the project is still in the planning stages for a remote area that doesn’t even have Internet access yet, the tribe’s chief and Google Inc. hope their unusual alliance will reduce illegal rainforest destruction where government enforcement is spotty at best.

Google Earth, which enables anyone who downloads its free software to see satellite images and maps of most of the world, is increasingly being called upon for humanitarian purposes by groups who see the technology’s potential.

“At Google, we feel an obligation to help groups like this when it is so clear that our tools can make an important positive impact,” spokeswoman Megan Quinn said.

Eventually, Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui envisions many of the 1,200 members of his Surui tribe using computers with satellite Internet connections and high-resolution images from Google Earth to police all corners of their 618,000-acre reservation.

They could then offer proof to authorities that the destruction is occurring and demand action, or possibly spook the loggers and miners away because they would know they are being monitored, said Surui, who uses his tribes’ name as his last, like many Brazilian Indians.

The loggers and miners “will certainly be scared, because we’ll be watching all the time and denouncing the invasions,” the chief said in an e-mail interview from Switzerland, where he was meeting with environmentalists and United Nations officials.

Surui came up with the idea some time ago when he was tooling around Google Earth and saw thin whitish lines suggesting deforestation in the vast verdant swath that popped up when he zoomed in on his reservation.

With help from the U.S.-based Amazon Conservation Team non-profit group, Surui met last month with Google Earth executives in California, wowing them with a vision of how Google technology could help stop the devastation, Quinn said.

“If you look at the Surui land today in Google Earth, you’ll see their ‘island’ of healthy green rainforest is surrounded almost completely by clear-cut, barren land,” she said. “The stark contrast at their boundary is dramatic, and conveys vividly what is at stake.”

Google Earth will now try to buy better satellite images of the Surui reservation from vendors to ramp up the quality of shots that turn extremely blurry when users try to focus in closer on the reservation, Quinn said.

The division of Google also committed to providing “layering” to accompany images of the Indians’ land, including photos and other information about “the Surui’s struggle to preserve their land and culture,” she said.

Quinn declined comment on Google Earth’s financial commitment and did not know how often the images of the reservation might be updated once the project gets under way.

Meanwhile, Chief Surui is lobbying for donations of computers and other equipment from companies or nonprofit groups and hopes to persuade the Brazilian government to include his tribe in a new program to provide Indians with satellite Internet connections.

The tribe has already proved its technological prowess, creating sophisticated maps of the reservation after receiving handheld Global Positioning System devices and laptop computers from the Amazon Conservation Team.

“We gave them GPS and told them how to use it and they took it from there,” said the group’s president, Mark Plotkin.

About 400,000 Brazilian Indians still live on reservations, the majority of them in the Amazon rainforest.

Indian reservations are among the best preserved areas of the 1.6 million-square-mile Amazon region, which has lost about 20 percent of its forest cover to loggers and ranchers in recent years.

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