Google takes Street View to the Amazon

October 18, 2011

This community in the heart of the Amazon is so remote that villagers had until recently
never heard of one of the
world’s best-known companies, Google.

So when they were told that Google would be introducing an off-road version of the company’s Street View project into their hamlet, population 100, residents thought that a popular Brazilian variety show host known as Gugu (pronounced goo-goo) was on his way. What came were a half-dozen “Googlers,” armed with a contraption holding nine cameras and fastened high above a bulky white tricycle.

Used previously to photograph Stonehenge, the Google Trike was mounted atop a motorboat that sped along the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, the cameras incessantly snapping pictures. It was then slowly pedaled along Tumbira’s dirt paths, past wood-plank homes and onto the soccer field. A special tripod-mounted camera was used to shoot inside the small school here and taken along a forest trail that led into a sea of green, where the Googlers were met by a cacophony of singing birds.

The cameras produced countless images that, once stitched together and posted online later this year, will provide a digital mirror of a slice of wilderness and village life that most people will never see in person.

“You’re floating down the river and you see a community and you stop and you get off the boat and then hike up the hill to the community and then walk around,” said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a strategist for Google Earth Outreach, who spent a week here overseeing the project. “It’s exactly how it is when you are up there, except maybe without the smells and sounds.”

The villagers, at first surprised by all the outsiders who had arrived in their hamlet, are now excitedly awaiting the final product.

“It was such a surprise, not what I expected,” Socorro Soares de Macedo said sheepishly, describing Google’s recent whirlwind, three-week stay in her village. “Now they’ll see us here from over there. I think they’re going to find it beautiful.”

The project here joined technology and environmental activism, with the goal of broadly circulating panoramic, 3-D photographs to show how people in one small community can protect the world’s largest forest and live off it at the same time, say Google officials and a local environmental organization that hatched the idea, the Foundation for a Sustainable Amazon, or FAS.

“One thing we always want people to know is the Amazon is not only about trees and biodiversity,” said Raquel Luna, who coordinates FAS’s efforts to educate villagers about conservation. “It’s also about people and communities. We’re talking about people that sometimes are forgotten by the world.”

Cameras and a cause

With the well-known Street View, Google has photographed cities worldwide, including dozens in Brazil, as well as landmarks ranging from the Roman Colosseum to the Golden Gate Bridge. Armchair travelers can tour the Prado museum in Madrid, fly close to the Great Pyramids at Giza or stroll along the Mall in Washington.

Then there is Google Earth Outreach, which maps and photographs remote spots, working closely with communities under duress or activists with a cause.

In the Brazilian state of Rondonia near Bolivia, for example, there is now an alliance with the Surui people. Their chief, Almir Narayamoga Surui, went to Google headquarters outside San Francisco in 2007 and asked for help in disseminating images capturing the threats the Surui were facing, said Felix Ximenes, a Google spokesman in Sao Paulo.

Photographs and high-resolution satellite images of their land, posted on Google, showed how much of the territory around the tribe’s reserve was being deforested, putting pressure on officials and ranchers who contended that there was no clear-cutting. Genocide in Darfur, fragile Mexican mangroves and environmental damage to Appalachian mountains also have made it onto Google Earth Outreach.

The latest project here in Amazonas state is the brainchild of Virgilio Viana, FAS’s chief executive, who proposed bringing Google Earth Outreach here to Rebecca Moore, the unit’s director.

Partnering with the state, FAS works with 7,500 families that live in 15 reserves, which taken together are equivalent in size to Virginia. Villagers pledge not to exhaust the forest and, in return, FAS helps them develop industries that rely on an intact jungle, from nut-gathering to tourism, fishing to managed logging.

Viana said making the images available worldwide can help small tour operators in Tumbira who increasingly view tourism as an option. The project with Google also creates a platform for FAS, which depends on partnerships with banks, engineering firms, hotel chains and other companies to fund programs and open markets for communities in the 15 reserves.

“People become emotionally interested in doing something for the Amazon,” said Viana, a Harvard-trained forester who frequently meets with power brokers the world over to push FAS’s cause. “By having a chance for people to travel at zero cost through Google Earth, they can become more interested in getting engaged.”

Conspiracy theorists

Not all of Google’s efforts to photograph the world have been welcomed. In Europe, regulators have levied fines for violation of data protection laws and many people have objected to having their homes and businesses photographed.

Some conspiracy theorists in Brazil have raised concerns in chat rooms that Google is really a proxy for the United States in a plot to seize the Amazon’s resources.

“Brazilian authorities should intervene because if they don’t, foreign capitalists will open the door to exploitation of our mineral reserves and biodiversity, which exclusively interests the USA,” said one alarmed writer, on a Web site that covered Google’s work here.

Even some residents here in Tumbira wondered whether there was some ulterior motive, if perhaps the strangers planned to sell the photographs they had taken, recalled Jose Nascimento, 42, leader of a regional association of 19 communities, including Tumbira.

He said he had to reassure his fellow villagers.

“The world today is looking at the Amazon — there are investors who want to invest in the Amazon and its conservation,” Nascimento said. “But they want to know if these communities are real or not. Through the photos, and the computer, people will know that it is real.”

The villagers were won over, said Nascimento and FAS workers, when they all gathered in Tumbira’s small school and were shown the images in Google Street View of some of the world’s great cities. And then they were told that Tumbira would be next.

“They showed us Rio de Janeiro, the beaches of Copacabana!” said Socorro Macedo. “I’d never, never been there.”

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