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The Surui Cultural Map

This week we're at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. We're sharing a series of posts about our activities at the conference on the Green Blog; in this cross-post we've gone into more detail about one announcement taking place there. -Ed.

This week at the Rio+20 conference, the Surui tribe of the Brazilian Amazon are launching their Surui Cultural Map on Google Earth. This represents the culmination of a unique five-year collaboration between the Surui people and Google, which began in June 2007 when Chief Almir Surui first visited Google and proposed a partnership. The story of that visit, and the remarkable project that followed, are told in a new short documentary also launching here at Rio+20: “Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops: Carbon and Culture.”

Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops: Carbon & Culture

Training the Surui youth as mapmakers

Over three visits to the Surui territory between 2008 and last month, our Google Earth Outreach team taught Surui youth how to take photos and videos and to collect stories from their elders (such as from the time before first contact with the modern world). Then they learned how to upload these to the Google cloud using tools like Picasa, Docs, and YouTube. From there we used Spreadsheet Mapper 3 to bind it all together to create a Google Earth KML of their map, which contains almost 300 sites.

Map highlights

Paiter Surui
The text reads: “Jenipapo fruit is produced by the jenipapo tree, which reaches twenty feet high. From the meaty part of the green fruit, an ink is extracted with which human skin can be painted. This makes the fruit very important for the Surui, because the art of painting is always included in everything that they do, especially in celebrations and rituals. The art of painting is one of the things most valued by Paiter. Each occasion calls for a different type of painting.”

Through this project, my team has learned that maps are an expression of culture. Mapmakers refer to the “atomic element” of a map as a point of interest, or POI. The Surui mapmakers created POIs that reflect their traditional culture’s close interdependency with their forest home. So instead of hotels and gas stations, on the Surui map you’ll find the locations of parrots and toucans, or the three kinds of trees necessary to make their bows and arrows. You’ll learn where to find the Acai trees (which provide delicious fruit as well as the thatch for their maloca longhouses), the locations of good hunting grounds for the porcao (wild pig), and where the jaguar roam (jaguars have particular spiritual significance to the Surui people and figure in their creation myth). There are also sites and stories of historical battles with other tribes and with the white settlers who started arriving after “first contact” in 1969. Here’s an example POI for the Jenipapo tree:

Here’s a rich storytelling tour of the Surui Cultural Map, narrated by Chief Almir and the Surui youth who were the star mapmakers:

Surui Cultural Map

As Chief Almir says at the conclusion of the Surui people’s Google Earth tour:

Without the forest, our entire culture would disappear. And without our culture, the forest would have disappeared a long time ago. It’s important to live in a sustainable way and to strengthen those whose livelihoods directly depend on a healthy ecosystem. We have a 50-year sustainability plan, which includes solutions for our territory. An example is the Surui Carbon Project, which uses technology to monitor the carbon stock of forest and trade it in the market for carbon credits. Our hope is that we can come together virtually and in person, and that we can find and implement solutions together.

It’s been a great honor for us to work with the Surui people and to experience their world view, especially to see how they blend their traditional knowledge and culture with modern technology. We’ve learned from Chief Almir that partnerships, consensus and collaboration are central; in that spirit, we’d like to thank our partners on this project: ECAMKanindé and Brazilian filmmaker Denise Zmekhol, who has documented the life of the Surui people for more than twenty years.

You can watch a video of the tour or download it in English or Portuguese. To learn more about the Surui tribe, known as “Paiter Surui,” please visit

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