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Ethnographic maps built using cutting-edge technology may help Amazon tribes win forest carbon payments

A new handbook lays out the methodology for cultural mapping, providing indigenous groups with a powerful tool for defending their land and culture, while enabling them to benefit from some 21st century advancements. Cultural mapping may also facilitate indigenous efforts to win recognition and compensation under a proposed scheme to mitigate climate change through forest conservation. The scheme—known as REDD for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation—will be a central topic of discussion at next month’s climate talks in Copenhagen, but concerns remain that it could fail to deliver benefits to forest dwellers.

Much of the Amazon rainforest remains occupied by tribal groups. While few of these live as conjured in the imagination, the state of the forests in their territories is a testament to their approach to managing lands. But like the Amazon itself, these groups face new pressures from the outside world. For the indigenous, the lure of urban culture is strong—cities seem to offer the promise of affluence and the conveniences of an easy life. But in leaving their forest homes indigenous peoples are usually met with a stark reality: the skills that serve them so well in the forest don’t translate well to an urban setting. The odds are stacked against them; they arrive near the bottom of the social ladder, often not proficient in the language and customs of city dwellers. The lucky ones may find work in factories or as day laborers and security guards, but many eventually return to the countryside. Some re-integrate into their villages, others return in a completely different capacity than when they departed. They may join the ranks of miners and loggers who trespass on indigenous lands, ferreting out deals that pit members of the same tribe against each other in order to exploit the resources they steward. As tribes are fragmented, and forests fall, indigenous culture—and the profound knowledge contained within—is lost. The world is left a poorer place, culturally and biologically.

In Rondonia, Brazil, Surui use ACT-provided laptops to monitor their reserve using Google Earth technology. Photo © Fernando Bizerra Jr.

But there is new hope, embodied by efforts to enable tribes to become more self-reliant through the use of state-of-the-art technology that builds on and leverages their traditional knowledge. These tools can help them better defend their lands and offer the potential for the next generation of Surui, Trio, or Ikpeng to have a future of their determination rather than one dictated to them by a society that values the resources locked in their territories over their forest knowledge and rich cultural history. Through such technology, tribes may be able to avoid a fate in which they become destroyers, rather than protectors, of the basis of their culture—their forest home.

At the forefront of this effort is the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a Virginia-based group with field offices in Brazil, Suriname, and Colombia. the Amazon Conservation Team has pioneered geographic information system (GIS) training of indigenous groups in the Amazon to enable them to map their land, not only as a means to demarcate it and win title, but to catalog their cultural links to the land. In building these “cultural maps,” tribes construct maps of their territory that go beyond the topography of the terrain, capturing the underlying richness of generations of human experience, including their interaction with the land and other tribes, and the distribution of plants and animals of nutritional, medicinal, and spiritual significance. In other words, in as much as indigenous culture is a product of the land, the maps capture the essence of these tribes.

But creating a cultural map is no easy task. It can take years of work by the tribe, laying out what the map will contain, determining what communities will participate, and coordinating who in the community will do the actual footwork. Other considerations also come into play, including harvesting cycles and seasons—mapping can’t interfere with the ongoing the activities that sustain the tribe—and the treatment of intellectual property contained in the maps, since these can be used for nefarious purposes in the wrong hands, including exploitation of timber, game, and medicinal plants.

A model map created by Indians in Brazil. Image courtesy of ACT.

The training itself can also be complex. Indigenous mappers must learn the ins and outs of handheld GPS units, GIS systems, computers, and Internet tools like Google Earth before they can construct maps and monitor their territories for threats and encroachment. But the payoff can be well worth the effort: 20 groups in the Brazilian Amazon have created culture and land use maps of their territories. The maps include 7,500 indigenous names, 120 villages, and thousands of area of cultural and historical significance. In Suriname, the maps are being used to help indigenous groups get government recognition of—and eventually title to—their lands. Some of the indigenous mappers have gone on to become certified as park guards, enabling them to earn an income while working to safeguard their lands.

The new handbook, “Methodology of Collaborative Cultural Mapping,” walks readers through the process of establishing community meetings between stakeholders, composing the mapping team, setting up training workshops, conducting fieldwork, developing the map, and finally delivering the map. The guide, which is available in both English and Brazilian Portuguese, comes at an opportune time: interest in tropical forest conservation has never been higher. The reason? Tropical forests are seen as critical in combating climate change, both in terms of their value in sequestering carbon and as a political compromise that could serve as the developing world’s contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As long-time stewards of tropical forests, indigenous people are effectively forest carbon guardians. But questions remain as to whether they will be recognized as such. Mapping their lands may help indigenous groups demonstrate their critical role in forest conservation efforts, earning them recognition, compensation, and a stronger voice in determining how their resources are managed.

An example can be found in the Surui tribe’s carbon project in Rondônia, Brazil, which aims to protect 250,000 hectares of forest. Prior to establishing the carbon project , the Surui worked closely with the Amazon Conservation Team to develop a cultural map of their lands.

Indigenous park guards on patrol near Kwamalasamutu, Suriname.

“The Surui ethno-graphic (cultural) map has become the key instrument in integrating their traditional knowledge of the forest with the latest technologies in carbon measuring and monitoring,” Vasco van Roosmalen, director of the Amazon Conservation Team-Brazil, told “It is one of the key instruments in translating the necessities of a carbon project to the community and in ensuring that their perspectives are truly integrated into the project design.”

Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, adds that having completed their map, the Surui are much better positioned to move ahead on their carbon credit project.

“After the mapping process has been completed, some of the indigenous are trained as internationally accredited park guards—meaning the forest protectors are in place, which is a real hurdle for other carbon projects where nobody lives in and protects these forests,” he told

“Ethnographic mapping represents the perfect marriage of ancient shamanic wisdom and 21st century technology,” Plotkin continued. “When done right, it results in better protection of the rainforest and enhanced capacity of the Indians to meet the opportunities and challenges posed by the outside world.”

Methodology of Collaborative Cultural Mapping


How rainforest shamans treat disease

(11/10/2009) Ethnobotanists, people who study the relationship between plants and people, have long documented the extensive use of medicinal plants by indigenous shamans in places around the world, including the Amazon. But few have reported on the actual process by which traditional healers diagnose and treat disease. A new paper, published in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, moves beyond the cataloging of plant use to examine the diseases and conditions treated in two indigenous villages deep in the rainforests of Suriname. The research, which based on data on more than 20,000 patient visits to traditional clinics over a four-year period, finds that shamans in the Trio tribe have a complex understanding of disease concepts, one that is comparable to Western medical science. Trio medicine men recognize at least 75 distinct disease conditions—ranging from common ailments like fever [këike] to specific and rare medical conditions like Bell’s palsy [ehpijanejan] and distinguish between old (endemic) and new (introduced since contact with the outside world) illnesses. In an interview with, Lead author Christopher Herndon, currently a reproductive medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco, says the findings are a testament to the under-appreciated healing prowess of indigenous shaman.

Google partners with Amazon tribe

(10/29/2009) The story of an indigenous Amazon tribe that has embraced technology in its fight to protect its homeland and culture is now highlighted as a layer in Google Earth.

Amazon Indians use Google Earth, GPS to protect forest home
(11/14/2006) Deep in the most remote jungles of South America, Amazon Indians are using Google Earth, Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping, and other technologies to protect their fast-dwindling home. Tribes in Suriname, Brazil, and Colombia are combining their traditional knowledge of the rainforest with Western technology to conserve forests and maintain ties to their history and cultural traditions, which include profound knowledge of the forest ecosystem and medicinal plants. Helping them is the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a nonprofit organization working with indigenous people to conserve biodiversity, health, and culture in South American rainforests.

Indians are key to rainforest conservation efforts says renowned ethnobotanist
(10/31/2006) Tropical rainforests house hundreds of thousands of species of plants, many of which hold promise for their compounds which can be used to ward off pests and fight human disease. No one understands the secrets of these plants better than indigenous shamans -medicine men and women – who have developed boundless knowledge of this library of flora for curing everything from foot rot to diabetes. But like the forests themselves, the knowledge of these botanical wizards is fast-disappearing due to deforestation and profound cultural transformation among younger generations. The combined loss of this knowledge and these forests irreplaceably impoverishes the world of cultural and biological diversity. Dr. Mark Plotkin, President of the non-profit Amazon Conservation Team, is working to stop this fate by partnering with indigenous people to conserve biodiversity, health, and culture in South American rainforests. Plotkin, a renowned ethnobotanist and accomplished author (Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, Medicine Quest) who was named one of Time Magazine’s environmental “Hero for the Planet,” has spent parts of the past 25 years living and working with shamans in Latin America. Through his experiences, Plotkin has concluded that conservation and the well-being of indigenous people are intrinsically linked — in forests inhabited by indigenous populations, you can’t have one without the other. Plotkin believes that existing conservation initiatives would be better-served by having more integration between indigenous populations and other forest preservation efforts.

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