Denise Zmekhol

Green21 Director Denise Zmekhol shares the most recent video update of her ongoing project with the Surui people and Google Earth Outreach.

We are posting the latest chapter in the continuing story of the partnership of the Surui people and Google entitled The Surui Carbon Project: A Great Adventure. The new film clip runs 4 min and tells the story of how the Surui are using Google Earth Engine, a new technology, to measure and protect the trees of the rainforest.

Google Earth Engine is an online environment monitoring tool, a digital model of our planet that is updated daily and available to the world. It stores petabytes (millions of gigabytes) of satellite data and allows high-performance tools to analyze and interpret this information that can then be visualized on a map. This platform can be used to measure rainforest changes in the Amazon, water resources in the Congo, or other important environmental resources.

I conducted several interviews with Google in Mountainview which we combined with footage taken in the Amazon by the Surui and their Carbon Project partners, including the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT Brazil), Metareilá, IDESAM, Kanindé, Forest Trends and FUNBIO. To learn more about the Google Earth Engine platform, visit their googlelabs page. If you want to know more about the Surui, watch Children of the Amazon.



In the Brazilian Amazon, there are hundreds of indigenous tribes that have lived sustainably for thousands of years.  The rainforest sustains them, and their way of life has sustained and preserved the forest. The Surui is one of these tribes.

First contact with the Surui was made in 1969 by government agents when a road was built right through their territory. Over the next 40 years this road brought hundreds of thousands of people to Western Amazon. In 1987, I first went to the Amazon to assist on some documentaries. During the next three years, I went back and forth several times, and visited the Surui and Negarote indigenous communities.  I also met the rubber tappers, including Chico Mendes. The rubber tappers came from other regions of Brazil to harvest latex from the wild rubber trees, and they had joined with the indigenous people to protect the forest. And now, 40 years later, their way of life and the forest in which they had lived was being destroyed. There was this explosion of logging, ranching, farming and mining, industries that were consuming the forest with little or no control.

I returned to the Amazon 15 years later. This is the subject of my film “Children of the Amazon.” During this time I met Chief Almir of the Surui tribe. I was amazed at how quickly the forest was disappearing, but I was also inspired by how people in the indigenous communities were fighting to preserve it, and to find a voice in the complex society that they were becoming part of. Not long afterwards, Chief Almir discovered Google Earth at an internet cafe near his village, and contacted Google to see if they could help him raise visibility for his tribe.  Google agreed to help Chief Almir and to train his people to use computer technology to protect Surui lands, preserve their culture, and empower their people.

Over these 40 years, the tribes of the Surui and Negarote have gone from complete self sufficiency to being part of a complex economy. Unfortunately that economy is not always sustainable, but rather based on removing resources, old growth trees, even fruit trees, and burning the land to create pasture for animals.  The economic pressure to exploit the forest is very strong. The murder of Chico Mendes by ranchers in 1988 drew international attention to these issues, but even in the time since then, indigenous leaders are threatened and sometimes killed.

Many of the indigenous peoples of Brazil have recognized that education, knowledge and communication are key to their survival. As you can see in the clip, part of their work with Google has been the creation of a “ethno-cultural map,” recording their knowledge and history of the forest, medicinal plants, the site of first contact. Recognizing that they must have income that doesn’t destroy their land, Chief Almir has created a 50 year plan of sustainable development based on education, reforestation, and gaining access to the international carbon offset markets.  I am inspired by their continuous work on behalf of this planet which we all must figure out how best to share.

If you are interested in getting involved, you can start by learning about sustainable practices and fair trade products in your area. For example, the more you understand about fair trade coffee, tea and lumber, the more you can make informed decisions. If you are buying hardwood floors and furniture, you can find out where the lumber is from and how it is certified.  Local choices are always more sustainable than commodities shipped from far away, but if you are using Brazilian wood products, look closely at the certification. Making informed choices on what you purchase is one of the ways you can help increase the incentive for sustainable development.

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My name is Denise Zmekhol. I am a filmmaker and photographer. I’m excited about the opportunity to produce and direct Green21, a series which addresses climate change and sustainability from a global perspective.

My latest film is Children of the Amazon, a co-production with ITVS. The clip above is about Forest Time – tempo de floresta in Portuguese – the time before the settlers came to the Amazon.

Below is an excerpt from my interview with Bruce Gellerman of Living on Earth

GELLERMAN: This is the sound of the Amazon rainforest. It’s one of the richest places on the planet for plants and wildlife and home to scores of remote indigenous tribes. The forest is also one of the most important places in the world for regulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


GELLERMAN: This too is the sound of the Amazon. Chainsaws and bulldozers have been carving away at the rainforest for decades clearing land for highways, cattle ranches and soybean plantations. It’s estimated that nearly 20 percent of the Amazon has been cleared, including an area almost the size of New Hampshire just last year.

Much of the destruction of the Amazon forest has taken place on the territory of indigenous tribes. In just a few brief years, members of many of these isolated societies were wrenched from the stone age into the space age… some driven nearly to extinction by their first contact with the outside world.

Almost 20 years ago, Denise Zmekhol traveled deep into the Amazon to photograph and document their struggles. She recently returned with a film crew to examine the changes the people of the rainforest have gone through since her first visit. Her new film is called “Children of the Amazon.”

It focuses on one tribe in particular: the Surui. Denise Zmekhol says the Surui never had contact with the outside world until the roads we built.

ZMEKHOL: The first official contact happened in 1969 when they were still living in what I call in the film “forest time.” It’s a very recent contact and I think they had to learn a lot about our society and our world in such a small time. So for thousands of years they were living in one way and just 39 years ago everything changed for them. [click here to continue…]