Amazon Indians claim their rain forest

2001-05-04 11:40

Alexandra - It doesn't look like much of a map: lots and lots of open space representing virgin South American rain forest, a few rivers and a single village.

But to the Tirio Indians of southern Suriname, the map represents their past, present and future, putting on paper for the first time the names of rivers they have fished for millennia, mountains they have used to navigate and sacred places. They hope it will protect them from loggers and miners who ache to exploit the riches of the Amazon forests.

"Now the Indians can say, 'Our village is here and our sacred mountain is here and our hunting grounds are here,'" Mark Plotkin, head of the Amazon Conservation Team, which organised the mapping project, told Reuters in an interview.

"We are hoping this will create facts on the ground. It says, 'Here is where we live, here is where our resources are.' It is a pre-emptive statement."

The map, being unveiled on May 4 at a mapping conference at the Library of Congress in Washington, covers about 16 000 square miles (40 000 square km) of southern Suriname, a small country nestled in the northeast shoulder of South America.

It represents a large chunk of the lushly forested country, itself only 63 000 sq miles (163 000 sq km) in size, an area inhabited by about 2 000 indigenous Tirio people.

"The Indians say, 'We want title to our land,'" Plotkin said. "What could be more ridiculous, because they have been living there 15 000 years?"

But Plotkin's group, and the Tirio, realise that maps are the only way to stake a legal claim in the 21st century.

"The Indians themselves some time ago had produced a map of their own, but that map did not have any credibility with the government," said Neville Gunther, who headed the mapping project for the Amazon Conservation Team.

"There was no involvement whatsoever of the government. They don't attach any meaning to it."

Anthropologist Mac Chapin of the Centre for the Support of Native Lands, which carried out the $100 000 project, said the Tirio maps were also too primitive.

"They stick with sketch maps and don't combine that information with cartographically accurate maps," he said. "They are useful for some purposes but the maps our team made are better because they contain all the cultural information in a format which is credible for legal and political work. You get maps that the government people will accept."

Plotkin, who has worked with Amazonian shamans for years to try to preserve some of their botanical and medical knowledge, put together a plan with Chapin, who was himself plotting ways to help indigenous people verify their land claims.

The best way to get the approval of the government, they decided, was to work with it. So they enlisted cartographers from the government of Suriname.

Existing maps showed empty forest

The cartographers had aerial images of the former Dutch colony. "You can see some features on aerial images but aerial images cannot provide you with the name," Gunther said. "The existing maps were just empty."

Chapin said there was no way to tell that vast areas that looked empty on maps were actually used by the hunter-gatherer Tirio. "Sometimes you see a little dot that says village, but people don't live in dots, they live in territories, and we had to document the territories of these people."

And for simple-living hunter-gatherers, it takes a lot of territory just to live. "When people look at a map and see a dot that says 'Kwamalasamutu,' they might say, 'Give them 3 kilometres around that dot,'" Gunther said.

But people who live off the animals they can find and shoot, the fruit they can gather and the little bit of cassava they grow for a staple need a great deal of land. The Tirio now have guns and do not have to rely on traditional methods such as poison darts, but guns make noise and noise spooks animals. They have to go pretty far to hunt now."

Kwamalasamutu is the main Tirio village - the only true village marked on the map - but the people go off to camps dispersed over a large area, the anthropologists said.

So how to fill in all those gaps in the government satellite maps? The two non-profit groups put together an unusual alliance of city folk and forest dwellers who left the Stone Age just a generation ago.

"We had to get young guys in blue jeans to sit next to the old guys, the shamans, and ask, 'What is our name for this stream?'" Plotkin said.

Chapin's team arranged workshops where government cartographers conferred with Tirio to name every river, stream, mountain and swamp they could. "What we are doing is transferring what is in a person's head onto paper," he said.

"They gathered all the information on land use, subsistence patterns, where people hunt, where they fish, where they farm, where they gather. You end up with maps that contain all sorts of cultural information."

This in turn can be used to fight off developers, miners and foresters who claim the land is not used.

"Now they (the Tirio) can apply for title to the lands," said Plotkin, whose group's Internet website at www.amazonteam describes the project.

Maps fighting maps

"The government is on the verge of giving out a bunch of concessions for timbering," Chapin said. "One of the ways that a lot of these timber concessions come in is you have a map which shows nothing and they say it is all empty - there are no people out there. We show there are people by using a map."

Gunther added, "Brazilian gold miners were entering the area and the Tirio didn't have anything to say, 'Hey you are trespassing now.'"

Chapin's group has done similar work in Honduras, Panama and Bolivia and in Cameroon in Africa and plan to do more projects elsewhere in Suriname, in Guatemala and in Brazil.

The hope is not only to preserve Indians' legal rights but to help save the rain forest and its huge diversity of delicate wildlife. Many researchers believe rain forest plants may contain unique medical properties, which is one motivation behind the Amazon Conservation Team's shaman project.

"Indians protect the forest and the forest protects the Indians," Plotkin said. "This is not going to save the Amazon per se. But why not, where you have Indians, where you have forest, why not try to head off the problem?"

And, he said, others could benefit if the map serves to help the Tirio protect their forest. For example, mining produces toxic metals that can get into the water supply.

"Every river in the western half of the country originates in this area," Plotkin said. "They are all drinking downstream of these guys. So you protect the headwaters."