Google has long offered anyone with an Internet connection a street-level view of cities and landmarks around the world, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Roman Coliseum.
Now, it's teaming up with a Brazilian environmental group to offer a 3-D, on-the-ground view of one of the planet's most remote areas: the hamlet of Tumbira in the center of the Brazilian Amazon. The goal is to show how people in the Amazon live — and educate the public about their effort to protect the forest.
Once stitched together, the images will be posted on Google Earth Outreach, which offers panoramic, ground-to-sky photographs of isolated spots in places where people and the environment may be under duress.
The People Are Sometimes Forgotten
To get to Tumbira, you have to take a boat ride on the Rio Negro — the fast-moving Black River, 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and go deep into the biggest forest on Earth. People in Tumbira fish, collect lumber to build wood-plank homes and educate their children in a small, neatly kept schoolhouse that offers a satellite connection to the outside world.
A few weeks ago, Google arrived in Tumbira, in Amazonas state, invited by the Foundation for a Sustainable Development. FAS, as it is known, works with 7,500 families in 15 reserves so large that, if put together, would be equal in size to Virginia. The group helps families in those reserves develop industries that are dependent on an intact jungle — nut gathering, tourism, fishing, and tightly managed lumbering.
Because Tumbira's people have committed themselves to sustainable living, FAS invited Google to photograph a hamlet with no paved roads, where 100 people live.
"One thing we always want people to know is that [the] Amazon is not only about trees and biodiversity," says Raquel Luna, who coordinates FAS's efforts to educate villagers about conservation. "OK, this is a lot and this is huge, but it's also about people, and communities here and sustainable living of these communities."
She says the people in places like Tumbira are sometimes forgotten, but that with the project with Google, the outside world will know about the importance of their mission in the forest.
"They're doing a very important work on conserving the forest, which is very good for everyone," Luna says.
Images Ready In A Few Weeks
So Google mounted its cameras on a special tricycle and took to Tumbira's trails and into the jungle — a place where Cleudilan Silveira goes in search of birds. An expert guide, Silveira calls out to them — catching sight of any number of species.
Google's cameras also went on the Rio Negro and its tributaries. That's where the locals fish for the monster-sized pirarucu.
Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a geostrategist for Google, oversaw the work. She says that in a few weeks, when the images are ready, they'll offer a seamless experience for computer users.
"You're walking down the forest trail and it's 360 panorama so you can look up, you can look down on the ground," she says. "In one place, you will be able to see an area where they gather Brazilian nuts and there are Brazil nuts all over the floor."
The idea, she said, is to offer a digital mirror of a world most outsiders will never see. "It's exactly how it is when you are up there, except maybe without the smells and sounds," she said.
Virgilio Viana, FAS's chief executive, says the project with Google can help generate tourism. He says it'll also help FAS get the point across to the corporations it seeks as partners — like the American hotel chain that buys nuts from this region.
"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."
Jose Roberto Nascimento, leader of Tumbira, thinks investors do want to put their money into projects that can help conserve the forest.
"But they want to know if these communities are real or not," he said. "Through the photos, and the computer, people will know that it is real."