Episode 3: Knowledge on the Map

Suriname is the only country in the Western hemisphere that does not recognize the land rights of indigenous groups. Yet, development projects, loggers, and miners have legal contracts allowing them to build on traditional lands. On this episode, we'll hear how indigenous groups are using maps to reclaim their territory. 


According to the late geographer Bernard Nietschmann “more indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns…” But in the hands of indigenous groups, maps provide an opportunity to reimagine this problematic history. 

Mark Plotkin: We had some illegal loggers coming into indigenous village [sic] and they showed some maps and they said OK your village is here and you have another village here and we just want to do logging around that.

That’s Mark Plotkin, President of the Amazon Conservation Team talking about the Trio tribe in Suriname

Mark Plotkin: And the sub-chief went in his hut and came back and laid out his map with several icons on it and said well our village is here, and the fish spawn here, and we hunt here. And the loggers said they’re just too organized so they left. 

ACT-Suriname Director Minu Parahoe discussing the long legacy of ACT's work conducting participatory mapping with indigenous and Maroon communities

ACT-Suriname Director Minu Parahoe discussing the long legacy of ACT's work conducting participatory mapping with indigenous and Maroon communities

Today, on Maps, Magic, and Medicine, we’ll hear how indigenous groups are protecting their land and culture by putting their knowledge on the map. 


Suriname is a small country in the Northeast coast of South America bordering Brazil. Indigenous and tribal groups make up almost 25% of Suriname’s population. But still to this day, Suriname does not recognize indigenous land claims.

Minu Parahoe: Suriname is I think is the only country on the Western Hemisphere who hasn’t recognized the land rights of indigenous people (Mikkelsen, 2015).

That’s Minu Parahoe

Minu Parahoe: I’m the program director of ACT Suriname

With no official land rights, indigenous and tribal groups are literally not on the map—And the stakes are high because at the same time gold mining operations, development projects, and loggers have legal contracts allowing them to work, mine, and build on traditional lands. And this comes after generations of violence during Suriname’s colonial history and the more recent wave of missionaries in indigenous communities.

Minu Parahoe: When the church came in everything was condemned and they were forced without knowing they abandoned their traditional beliefs and habits.

Minu Parahoe: But then at a certain point something happened that I cannot really explain.  The elders started to go back and promote their traditions and their culture  again. So that’s quite amazing to see. 

Through what’s called participatory or community-based mapping, indigenous groups in Suriname are using maps to document and promote this cultural knowledge. With maps of their own, indigenous groups can stake a claim to land that was always-already theirs.  

Rudo Kemper: The ethos behind participatory mapping is to include local people as much in the process. 

That’s Rudo Kemper, a mapping specialist at the Amazon Conservation Team. 

Rudo Kemper: So before participatory mapping the main idea would be that you go to a community and you ask some basic questions and you start collecting data and then you leave and produce maps. You might come back to a community and show them but frequently that didn’t happen. So the object of that exercise in cartography is to produce maps for yourself as a researcher or for the research community. The idea behind participatory mapping is that you give the people, the local communities themselves the power to partake in the mapping process.

One maroon community in Suriname called the Matawai is just beginning this type of community based mapping. 

Four centuries ago, formerly enslaved peoples, now called maroons, fled from coastal plantations into the rainforest. For generations they fought against the colonial government and eventually won recognition for their tribal lands. But when Suriname became an independent nation in 1975, these colonial agreements were void. 

Now, six Maroon groups trace their ancestry back to these formerly enslaved peoples. They make up almost a quarter of Suriname’s population, yet their ancestral territory is not recognized by the current government. 

Gold miners from Nieuw Koffiekamp exploring a new gold concession that was cleared only days before. 

Gold miners from Nieuw Koffiekamp exploring a new gold concession that was cleared only days before. 

One of the smallest of these Maroon groups is the Matawai. They live in the “buffer zone” of Suriname’s largest protected areas. Meaning their territory provides an additional layer of protection for biodiversity and clean water. So, really, the Matawai community is on the frontlines—especially because as they start to the slow process of mapping their ancestral territory, a road project is beginning.

Hydraulicking used in small-scale gold mining

Hydraulicking used in small-scale gold mining

Minu Parahoe: With the road people come for gold mining people will come to do tourism to ask the locals to perhaps sell some resources, which are not, you know, de facto wrong, but you need to be prepared. And I think we started very late in this community and we are facing challenges. I think they will be overwhelmed and the process is one you cannot take a short cut. It is a lengthy process, which is very challenging when a development is coming to the community

Granman (chieftan) Valentijn, the chief of the Matawai community, is realistic about these challenges but eager to get started with mapping. Here Niradj Hanoeman helps to translate.

When they come back to the Matawai area, they can look at the map, they can read the history and then they instantly know where they’re from
— Granman Lesley Valentijn

Granman Lesley Valentijn: He says it’s from eminent importance for the present and the future because if the ancestors did it a long time ago then they wouldn’t be in this position that they have to do it, but now they are in  the position to do it and they will gladly do it for future generations and also the pieces of the community that live abroad. When they come back to the Matawai area, they can look at the map, they can read the history and then they instantly know where they’re from

With the road project gaining momentum, the Matawai community is beginning to document what’s important to them in their local landscape as well as the stories associated with those places. Perhaps appropriately, the first areas that they want to document are the natural highways already flowing in their territory. 

ACT geographer Rudo Kemper (left) with William Anipa (right), a Matawai elder whose knowledge of the Matawai landscape is renowned.

ACT geographer Rudo Kemper (left) with William Anipa (right), a Matawai elder whose knowledge of the Matawai landscape is renowned.

Rudo Kemper: For the Maroons, the most important part of the local  geography is the river. The river is what provides them with food, is what it  enables them to travel long distances. It’s the most central part of life for Maroons. And so when we brought the maps to the Matawai, the only thing we had on there was the rivers and creeks. And we showed it to them and said OK. From there we asked them to write down everything that they recognize. Every single creek, features of the river, where it splits in two, areas like this. And with relative ease the entire group of people that were there, they were able work out the names of everything that is contained on the map. There were three maps that we had because there were three small groups. Then when we went back to the field station we compared them and the information matched exactly.

So that’s really the first step in the mapping process—consulting with the community and asking them to identify important areas in their territory. 

Rudo Kemper: And then the next step after that is that okay, the first thing you have these hand drawn maps. Then the next thing is to get the actual locations of where these creeks and local names and features are. And here is where the modern technology comes in. Only at this stage to do you bring in a GPS or a smart phone equipped with data collection software to actually visit these places.

Matawai women from the villages of Boslanti and Vertrouw showing their hand-drawn map with local Matawai names for roughly 50km of the Saramacca River

Matawai women from the villages of Boslanti and Vertrouw showing their hand-drawn map with local Matawai names for roughly 50km of the Saramacca River

When we brought the maps to the Matawai, the only thing we had on there was the rivers and creeks... we asked them to write down everything that they recognize....Then when we compared them and the information matched exactly.
— Rudo Kemper
Global Forest Watch screenshot showing tree cover loss and gain in central Suriname.

Global Forest Watch screenshot showing tree cover loss and gain in central Suriname.

Another mapping specialist at the Amazon Conservation Team, Brian Hettler, explains some specs of these data collection tools.

Matawai community members working with GPS devices

Matawai community members working with GPS devices

Brian Hettler: So using these tools communities will be able to go into the forest and collect information about ecosystem types, deforestation. What we’re currently in the process of doing is deploying these devices with communities. Whenever they’re in the forest they’re collecting data. Then we’re using that information to create forest cover data sets. For example, we’re using high-resolution satellite imagery from digital globe, which can be 30-35 centimeter resolution. We’re using information that communities are collecting to classify that imagery to create highly detailed forest cover maps that are based on local knowledge.

After field officers at the Amazon Conservation Team train indigenous groups to use mapping technology and data collection software, they become certified as indigenous park guards or IPGs—and function as park rangers in their territory.

Granman Valentijn (left) and community members reviewing the maps

Granman Valentijn (left) and community members reviewing the maps

Minu Parahoe: The rangers we have at this moment are measuring data on forest inventory, on carbon, they are looking at biomass, they do capture data on wildlife and this is important for food security issues. They do map the areas where agricultural plots are to understand the relationship between diseases and pests and crop yields. So, the IPGs do more than mapping.

Even though the Matawai community is just beginning this type of community-based mapping, Granman Valentijn already sees the potential.

 

Granman Lesley Valentijn: It’s new technology. GPS was a new introduction to them. Yeah in the beginning it’s a bit difficult to learn it, but it’s like a newborn newborn baby, it has to crawl first, then it takes its first step and falls, after time passes you get to know it and he wants to go for the top.

So, when we come back, we’ll hear from the person who started this all with hand drawn maps and see how far those maps have taken him.


Cross-cultural training: Keeng Kumu, an indigenous cartographer from the Trio community of Kwamalasamutu, shows a Matawai elder a map of his village

Cross-cultural training: Keeng Kumu, an indigenous cartographer from the Trio community of Kwamalasamutu, shows a Matawai elder a map of his village

Welcome Back. So we heard how the Matawai community is just beginning to map in the main river flowing through their community. But all of this started about 150 miles to the south in the Trio community’s territory. Wuta, who we met in Episode 2, was one of the first people to begin this type of mapping in the Trio community’s territory. Here, Mark Plotkin translates.

Wuta Wajimnu: One of the thing it allows you to do is put your own names on the maps. You don’t have the government’s name, you have the Trio name.

Wuta began to create hand-drawn maps from memory about the important areas in the Trio territory and he was part of the group that inspired conservationists at the Amazon Conservation Team to expand this type of documentation into what is now participatory mapping

Rudo Kemper: 20 years ago when ACT saw this or people that worked at ACT saw this they recognized that there was incredible knowledge already. So that’s that stuff started, without any technology and eventually we started to introduce technology to make that process more efficient. The methodology hasn’t changed. It’s essentially that of indigenous people putting their knowledge on the map. 

Wuta (left) presenting maps at the IV International Congress on Biodiversity of the Guiana Shield in Georgetown, Guyana. Niradj Hanoeman (right), ACT’s sustainable livelihoods officer and field station manager, translates.

Wuta (left) presenting maps at the IV International Congress on Biodiversity of the Guiana Shield in Georgetown, Guyana. Niradj Hanoeman (right), ACT’s sustainable livelihoods officer and field station manager, translates.

Minu explains how whenever there’s a meeting about Trio lands, Wuta will pull out his old maps. Not only do these maps show local knowledge the culturally important areas that are not on Suriname’s official map. But they are also a source of pride for Wuta and the Trio community

Minu Parahoe: And then he [Wuta] will stand up and give his talks, show his own drawings, his notes and the chief of this tribe—the trio tribe of Kwamalasamutu—will proudly stand up and say that is our Wuta! He was the first mapper of our community! 

So, when the community members see their efforts, their knowledge, and their local place names put on a map, it gets them to want to participate.

So he’s saying it’s an iterative process... he says, “I don’t just want to make a map, I want to make a correct map... he says, “I want to hold, protect, cherish, keep the forest, the game, the waters, the animals, and the map is essential for that
— Wuta Wajimnu

Wuta Wajimnu: So he’s saying it’s an iterative process. He’ll go back to the village and they'll [the community members] say, "oh no that name is wrong. There’s a lot of old cassava plantation there, but it must have been a village what did they call it?"  That way, he says, "I don’t just want to make a map, I want to make a correct map."

Wuta WajimnuHe said, I want to hold, protect, cherish, keep the forest, the game, the waters, the animals and the map is essential for that.

So the radical thing here is not the technology itself, but rather the platform that map-making gives indigenous groups. With maps as a guide, indigenous groups can communicate why their territory is important in a country that still does not recognize indigenous land rights. 

In the end ACT is just a facilitator. The map is based on their field work, their input, on their field work.
So it’s their map.
— Minu Parahoe

Currently, Wuta is part of a delegation that’s using maps to begin a discussion about land rights with the government of Suriname.  

Minu Parahoe: They are having talks with the government about land rights issues and yes Wuta and Keeng—who is another mapper—are part of this delegation. So Trios are very proud of these two guys who started mapping based on their knowledge.

So while the map itself is a useful tool, the powerful thing is that Wuta has place at the table. 

Rudo Kemper:  By providing a community with their own version and their own map of their lands, you’re giving them an incredible claim to state that this is theirs. That this is not belonging to an outside entity like a government or a corporation or something like that. You’re empowering them. It enables the community to document their own knowledge, which is something that we’ve seen all across the world with traditional communities that in the 21st century local knowledge is increasingly being lost. So putting it on the map is one way of preserving an incredible amount of local knowledge that has been built up for centuries in these communities that live in the rainforest. 

A hand-drawn map made in 1989 by the indigenous cartographer Keeng Kumu from Kwamalasamutu

A hand-drawn map made in 1989 by the indigenous cartographer Keeng Kumu from Kwamalasamutu

So, with his knowledge on the map, Wuta is using the tools at hand to ensure the forest remains for the next generation and that the next generation remains in the forest. As they monitor the health of their environment and as they document their ancestors’ stories, indigenous and tribal communities struggle for recognition within a country that has erased them from its official map. 

Even though they’re using new tools and new approaches, even though their efforts help to protect the rainforest and mitigate the effects of climate change for us all, the impact lies in something more basic: a determination to ensure that one’s community and one’s culture have a right to the next generation. A desire to make a mark and to stake a claim that one’s community, one’s family, and one’s local environment exist and will continue to exist now that the knowledge is on the map. 

Further Reading

Amazon Gold Rush: Gold Mining in Suriname Interactive Story Map

Carlin, Eithne B., and D. van Goethem(Photography). In the Shadow of the Tiger: The Amerindians of Suriname. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2009.

De Beet, Chris; Miriam Elizabeth Sterman. People in Between: the Matawai Maroons of Suriname. University of California, 1981.

Plotkin, Mark J. Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice : an Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines In the Amazon Rain Forest. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1994. 

Price, Richard. Alabi's World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Price, Richard. First-time: the Historical Vision of an African American People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 

Mans, Jimmy. Amotopoan Trails: A Recent Archaeology of Trio Movements. Lieden: Sidestone Press, 2012. 

Nietschmann, Bernard. “Defending the Miskito Reefs with maps and GPS: Mapping with sail, scuba, and satellite. Cultural Survival Quarterly 18(4) 1995 34-37.

"Suriname." The Indigenous World 2015. Ed.  Cæcilie Mikkelsen. Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 145-150.