Inside a thatched-roof schoolhouse in Nabekodabadaquiba, a village
deep in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, Surui Indians and former military
cartographers huddle over the newest weapons in the tribe’s fight for
survival: laptop computers, satellite maps and hand-held global
positioning systems. At one table, Surui illustrators place a sheet of
tracing paper over a satellite image of the Sete de Setembro indigenous
reserve, the enclave where this workshop is taking place.
Painstakingly, the team maps out the sites of bow-and-arrow skirmishes
with their tribal enemies, as well as a bloody 1960s attach on
Brazilian telegraph workers who were laying cable through their
territory. “We Suruis are a warrior tribe,” one of the researchers
A member of the Ikpeng Tribe in the Xingu territory of Brazil holds a map. Image courtesy of Amazon Conservation Team.
A few feet away, anthropologists sketch out groves of useful trees and plants on another map. A third team charts the breeding areas of the territory’s wildlife, from toucans to capybaras, the world’s largest rodent. When the task is finished, in about a month, the images will be digitized and overlaid to create a map documenting the reserve in all its historical, cultural, and natural richness. “I was born in the middle of the forest, and I know every corner of it,” says Ibjaraga Ipobem Surui, 58, one of the tribal elders whose memories have been tapped. “It’s very beautiful work.”
~ Joshua Hammer, Rain Forest Rebel, Smithsonian March 2007
Amazon Indians Use the Latest Technologies to Protect Their Rainforest Home
Besieged by rapid encroachment from all directions, the Indians of the
Amazon rainforest have armed themselves with the latest technologies to
defend the boundaries of their vanishing ancestral lands -
satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping and Google
Mark Plotkin with Waura shaman, Easterrn Amazon. Image courtesy of ACT.
Their ally in this endeavor is the Amazon Conservation Team, which provides the Indian tribes the funding and the training on how to use GPS and the Internet to better manage and protect their ancestral territories. Through GPS-enabled ethnographic mapping, ACT has helped indigenous tribes in Suriname, Brazil and Colombia catalogue their deep knowledge of the rainforest ecosystem and document their cultural history. Most importantly, the mapping project helps the tribes politically substantiate the boundaries of their land claims against competing interests from gold miners, loggers and cattle ranchers. Using Google Earth, the Indians are able to monitor deforestation and gold-mining activities, as well as locate the latest invasions on their land. To accomplish these initiatives, ACT partners with local governments and NGOS, so that the end-result is a cross-cultural collaboration, in the name of rainforest conservation.
So far ACT has helped tribes in Suriname, Brazil and Colombia map millions of acres of ancestral rainforests, working with 26 different tribes, such as the Apalai, Wayana, Tirio and Kaxuyana, in the northern, southern, eastern, and western Amazon.
Ethnomapping the Amazon’s Cultural Landscape
The white men have the Bible and other books to teach their kids about
their ancestors. We now have our map to teach our children our history
~ Chief Joao Arana of the Apalai tribe
Tirio Indians mapping their lands in Suriname. Image courtesy of ACT.
Trained by Western cartographers, the Indians strike forth into the jungle with their handheld GPS devices, sometimes wearing little else than red body paint and breech-cloths. Their task is to match up territorial landmarks that have been etched in their minds since childhood with latitude and longitude – a process that requires at least two rounds of data collection over a several month period of time. After the coordinates are noted, the Indians then cross-check their data with the tribe’s elders, hunters, and fishermen. At times, the elders accompany the Indian cartographers into the field to locations of cultural or spiritual importance. This includes a round of story telling - sometimes lasting a couple of hours - as legends long carried forward in the oral tradition find their place onto the map as well. Finally, the maps are reviewed again and cross-referenced with data from mapping projects conducted by other tribes, satellite imagery, and legacy maps. Eventually, what began as a sheet of large white paper becomes filled with symbols that reveal abundant historic, cultural and strategic information. The maps contain information that spans past, present and future, bridging mystical realms with physical reality.
"Westerners maps in three dimensions: longitude, latitude, and altitude," explained Plotkin, ethnobotanist and President of the The Amazon Conservation Team. "Indians think in six: longitude, latitude, altitude, historical context, sacred sites, and spiritual or mythological sites, where invisible creatures often mark watersheds and areas of high biodiversity as off-limits to exploitation."
According to Vasco van Roosmalen , ACT’s Brazil Program Director, the maps show everything from occupied and unoccupied villages to the location of hunting grounds, historic battlegrounds, sacred sites, animal breeding refuges, and useful materials. The Indians will mark where they can find medicinal plants, wood for canoes, honey, and açaí – a palm fruit rich in antioxidants that makes a healthy, smoothie-like snack that Brazilians love. Locations of importance are unique to each tribe. The Wayana, the best boatmen in the northeast Amazon, have marked specific parts of the forest where they can find wood hard enough to make arrow points and where they can find the hollow wood they use to craft the arrow shaft.
Tirio Indian with GPS, Tumucumaque Indigenous Reserve, Brazil. Image courtesy of ACT.
However, not everything makes its way onto the map, says Plotkin.
“I was out hunting with a shaman’s apprentice once and he said, “Look!” And we looked down into the creek and it sparkled. It just sparkled yellow. I said, “Is that what I think it is?” He goes, “Yep!.” So we didn’t put gold on the map, but it’s sure there. So they decide what they want on the map, and they decide what they DON’T want on it!”
The locations of valuable medicinal plants are usually left off the map. Decades of biopiracy have left the Indians increasingly reluctant to disclose their knowledge of medicinal plants. In the Amazon, stories abound of remedies that were shared with Western scientists and prospectors and developed into profitable drugs, enriching pharmaceutical companies and leaving the originators of the medicines bereft of any financial compensation. According to Plotkin, biopiracy has not been as egregious in the Amazon as in other rainforest regions. However, many Indians are aware that any patents developed from remedies shared with outsiders would legally deny the Indians any opportunity to produce or sell the very same medicines they have been using for thousands of years. After centuries of persecution, the Indians have discovered the hard way that some things are still best kept secret.
Kofan Indian taking notes, Colombia. Image courtesy of ACT.
Googling Amazon Deforestation
Indigenous reservations are among the best-preserved and last remaining pristine rainforest areas in the Amazon Basin. Illegal mining has been one of the biggest threats to rainforest conservation in the Amazon region. According to Rhett Butler of Mongabay, since the 1990s, the region that includes parts of French Guiana, Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname, Brazil, and Colombia has witnessed a gold rush that has brought tens of thousands of informal miners across poorly patrolled – or unpatrolled - borders.
Waura chief on the radio, Eastern Amazon. Image courtesy of ACT.
Mining activities cause environmental devastation, including mercury pollution, and sedimentation of pristine rivers and streams. The influx of miners brings new diseases into the area, such as malaria and AIDS. Prostitution, drugs, crime and corruption also proliferate in the lawless environment of the new Amazonian frontier. Indian leaders, dazzled by the promise of fast riches from dealings with outsiders, accumulate debts that are difficult to pay, which further mire the tribe in contentious dealings with the outside world. As social tensions mount, violent clashes erupt between miners and tribes, such as the 1994 case of 29 diamond illegal miners who were killed on the Cinta Larga reserve in Brazil.
“We had asked the Federal Police over and over again to make the miners leave, and when they didn’t we took miners prisoner and delivered them to the police ourselves,” said Pio Cinta-Larga, who often serves as the tribe’s liaison to the outside world. “But the police would release them the same day, and the miners would immediately come back and threaten and make fun of us Indians. So we said, ‘Enough is enough, let’s show these people who we are.’ ”
According to Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, who works for Kaninde, and environmental and indigenous rights group, another factor - which the tribe is reluctant to discuss out of shame and embarrassment - contributed to the killings.
“From what the Cinta-Larga women told me, they were tired of seeing the miners raping girls as young as 14 and bringing in drugs,” she said. “So they pressed their men to take a stand.””
Illegal mining activities have always been extremely difficult to detect, due to the remoteness of the region and the expanse of the Amazon rainforest. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint a clandestine airstrip in a patch of cleared forest or series of riverside sluices from the ground. Furthermore, the sheer extent of the territory that needs to be monitored makes detection by airplane flyovers much like searching for a needle in a never-ending green haystack.
Tirio cartographers entering data, Suriname. Image courtesy of ACT.
Satellite imaging through Google Earth has made the task of policing their territory much, much easier for the Indians. From various ACT offices in South America, Indians log onto the Internet and launch Google Earth to monitor their lands for any new signs of suspicious activity. They pinpoint suspect areas, note the coordinates, and then go on foot patrol to investigate the area further. If the area is too difficult to reach by foot, they will mark the spot for future flyovers with government officials.
The Google Earth team has been committed to helping ACT and the indigenous tribes protect their rainforests in a number of ways. ACT provides the Google Earth team with lists of coordinates where it would be helpful to have sharper images. Google Earth purchases, when possible, better satellite images of the areas in question, so that coordinates that were once extremely blurry when users zoomed in would have better resolution. The newly updated, high resolution images have allowed the Indians to identify invasions and illegal activities they never knew existed, right down to the smallest gold mine.
Google Earth is also committed to "layering" satellite images with complementary content, such as photos, indigenous place names, and other content that will help illustrate the tribes’ struggle to preserve their land and culture.
Mapping for a Better Future
GPS mapping combined with satellite imaging from Google Earth allow the Indians to create risk maps for the future - maps that will serve a critical role in ongoing land management and politics. By identifying the location and movement of threats to their territorial borders – gold mines coming in here, campesinos from over there, a new swath of deforestation not far from where a road was recently opened – the Indians are now able to take a proactive approach in protecting their homelands.
Ikpeng cartographers, Eastern Amazon. Image courtesy of ACT.
The maps have also played an important part in community building, as well. GPS mapping has brought rival tribes together for a common good. Whereas, before, neighboring tribes kept to themselves in their own territories, the maps help show them that they, in actuality, occupy one large, connected piece of land – and that intertribal collaboration may be their best defense.
Mapping also bridges the generational gap between indigenous elders and the youth. The elders share their knowledge of the forest, including the rich lore that permeates their knowledge of the land. The youth are hungry to learn how to use the newest technologies - computers, the Internet, GPS, and Google Earth. Where once technology created a digital divide, in this case, it forges a powerful bridges between generations.
“If you make a map for somebody, whether it’s some kid in the inner city or some Indian in the Amazon, it may help them,” says Mark Plotkin. “But if you teach them how to make their own map, it’s empowering them and it’s teaching self-reliance.”
Apalai children, Tumucumaque Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of ACT.
The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) was founded by Mark Plotkin , a renowned Harvard-trained ethnobotanist and author of 2 books, Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice and Medicine Quest . Mark has spent much of the last 20 years working with isolated indigenous tribes in various parts of the world, especially the Indians of the South American Amazon. ACT's mission is to work in partnership with indigenous people in conserving biodiversity, health, and culture in tropical America.
In December 2007, the Amazon Conservation Team was awarded Mongabay.com's inaugural "Innovation in Conservation Award" commemorating its “path-breaking efforts to enable indigenous Amazonians to maintain ties to their history and cultural traditions while protecting their rainforest home from illegal loggers and miners.”
ACT was also recently given a top rating (four stars) by Charity Navigator, which ranks not-for-profit organizations in terms of their effectiveness and efficiency.
You can support ACT's immense work in helping indigenous peoples save rainforests and their cultural legacy by donating here.