Amazon Highway

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It's a blazing hot June afternoon alongside the Amazon Highway, a two-lane line of blacktop bisecting the sun-bleached land between Ji-Parana and Cacoal in central Brazil. The Google Earth Outreach (GEO) team is here with the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) of Brazil to host a series of workshops for the Surui, a local indigenous tribe. We've spent an hour driving through a grim terrain of subsistence farms, sagging power lines and sere fields stretching to the horizon. Just a few decades ago, this was all old-growth rain forest.

ACT Brazil director Vasco van Roosmalen has been recounting how the imperiled Brazilian rain forest disappeared. In the 1960s, prospectors started hacking dirt roads through the dense growth (today, you can find the newest of these roads using Google Earth). Once the loggers got their equipment in, they clear-cut the forest, trucked out the good timber, burned the rest down to dirt, and then paved the roads so the farmers could bring in cattle and soybeans. And with paved roads and organized agriculture came, well, everything else that is modern civilization. "The whole process is pretty much uncontrolled," Vasco says as we approach our hotel. "The market moves much faster than the government."

That's been bad news for the Surui, who for millennia lived a traditional existence in a huge virgin tract of forest. Since their first contact with the modern world in 1969, disease and environmental destruction have shrunk their numbers from 5,000 to perhaps 1,200 people living in a string of villages along the edges of their last 600,000 acres

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a 360° view of the Amazon Highway