Google on Guard

Your jungle home security system


When the government failed to enforce their land rights, the Suruí Indians of northwestern Brazil found a more reliable ally: Google.

Property rights in Brazil are a mess of competing claims, with ranchers, rubber tappers, Indians, and landless squatters all scrambling to mark what they think should be theirs. Indians traditionally have gotten the short end of the stick, though that has changed somewhat in the last couple of decades, as indigenous protests and international pressure have compelled the government to recognize some tribal land rights. Today more than 12 percent of the country is reserved for Indians.

But it is one thing to recognize a right and another thing to enforce it. Loggers, miners, and others still eat away at the boundaries of Indian territory. The resulting conflicts have often turned violent, an outcome exacerbated by the remoteness of much of the land. In a country where it is still possible to discover small tribes that have avoided any contact with the white man, the government simply can't keep track of the encroachments, even when it wants to do so.

But Google Earth can. The popular program superimposes aerial photos and satellite images over maps of nearly every corner of the world. Together with the Amazon Conservation Team, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization, a group of Suruí has been using Google Earth, global positioning systems, and other technologies to map and monitor their land. Earlier this year, Chief Almir Suruí visited Mountain View, California, to ask Google for higher-quality images of their area. The company happily signed on to the project.

That sharper scrutiny will give the Indians a better idea of where the trespassing is happening. It will give the government evidence of the abuses. It will give the trespassers an incentive to back away. And perhaps most miraculously, it will transform satellite surveillance by a private business into a plausible progressive cause.