New Map Helps Protect Ten Million Acres Of Rainforest
Feb. 25, 2002
WASHINGTON DC — An extraordinary map, created by rainforest Indians in red breechcloths carrying handheld GPS (geographic positioning systems) and demarcating ten million acres of pristine rainforest, is being unveiled at the Brazilian Embassy here on January 23rd. This map of the Tumucumaque region in the northeast Amazon is the product of an unusual collaboration by FUNAI (the Brazilian government Indian agency), PPTAL (a G7 funded initiative to demarcate indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon), the Amazon Conservation Team (a non-profit organization based in Arlington VA) and four Indian tribes living in the northeast Amazon. These tribes - the Tirios, Kaxuyana, Wayana, and Apalai - are small bands of forest dwellers that have in the past teetered on the edge of extinction. The participants believe this map will be the first and most important step in creating a management plan for the protection of the region’s legendary forests and will serve as a blueprint for similar efforts in rainforests around the world.
“The Tumucumaque Indigenous Reservation project has many positive aspects, of which I would like to single out three:
- The effective participation of the Indian tribes in the process;
- The clear demonstration, as shown by the map, of the extent to which the Indians in the area are in fact occupying their reservation;
- The fact that the map has received widespread approval from the Indian groups themselves, who are quite pleased with the results of their work.
Based on their map, the four tribes of this reservation will be able to better organize and develop their resources. And they have prepared it wisely; the location of the widely coveted medicinal plants they know so much about - many of which have been illegally taken abroad from the Amazon rainforest - is not revealed in the map,” declares the Honorable Rubens Antonio Barbosa, Brazil’s Ambassador to the United States.
The vision also extends to the partnerships formed to share in the daunting task of mapping one of the most famously difficult environments on the planet. The Brazilian government in the last decade has embarked on an ambitious effort to demarcate and protect the indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon. The Tumucumaque map covers the largest area and is the most detailed indigenous map of the Amazon ever created. “We salute the Brazilian government, FUNAI and, especially, the Indians themselves,” said Dr. Mark Plotkin, President of the Amazon Conservation Team whose organization has carried out similar (though smaller scale) efforts with indigenous partners in both Colombia and Suriname, as well as a successful effort to map over a million acres of indigenous lands in Brazil's fabled Xingu Indigenous Reserve. “The Tumucumaque map sets a new standard of excellence in the management and protection of these rainforests. We are honored to be included in this project.”
Over two years ago, a team of Brazilian cartographers, agency workers, and ACT’s Brazil team met with indigenous leaders deep in the jungles of the Tumucumaque in the remote village of Aldeia Bona to begin the training of indigenous map-makers. One of the first obstacles to the process was the concept of a map itself. “We thought at first the Tirios didn't understand the process of identifying landmarks,” said Milton Alcover, lead cartographer on the project, “but we quickly learned that the Indians have detailed maps of their territories inside their heads. Their maps are three-dimensional, while ours are only two-dimensional drawings on paper. We simply weren't speaking the same language.”
The Indians were shown how to collect data using global positioning satellites (GPS), and set out to cover every square inch of their territories. Thousands more people-hours were spent compiling drafts from data, aerial photos, and previous attempts to map the lands. Tribal elders were then asked to compile cultural records of the area: the names of rivers, mountains, and sacred sites; fishing and hunting grounds; and places of historical or mythical significance. “What looks to us like an empty forest is, to the Tirios, full of wealth and meaning,” says Vasco van Roosmalen, Brazil Program Director for the Amazon Conservation Team and field director of the mapping project. “The Indians know these forests like we know the insides of our houses, but the problem has always been that the knowledge had never been recorded. So rich in information is the map - with data on history, mythology, landmarks, etc., that the Indians regard it as a sort of ‘cultural DNA’ and are using it to teach the children their history.” Said Joao Arana, chief of the Apalai tribe: “The whites man have the Bible and other books to teach their kids about their ancestors. We now have our map to teach our children our history.”
For the Tirios, a people so ancient their myths recall crossing the Bering Strait, the map is a way of making themselves visible to western cultures. And one of the most astonishing discoveries in the course of the project is that the Indians maintain a strictly protected, no-hunting zone in the middle of their lands.
“We are pleased at the results of this extraordinary collaborative effort,” said Dr. Adrian Forsyth, of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which funded the project. “Indigenous lands are vital in efforts to conserve and manage Amazonian ecosystems. This project demonstrates the importance of the indigenous component.”
In the early planning stages are proposed maps to chart another 100 million acres of indigenous reserves in other parts of the Amazon, since these indigenous lands often coincide with areas of high biodiversity as well as critical natural resources. The Tumucumaque region, for example, harbors the headwaters of several major rivers that provide crucial resources to large areas of the northeastern Amazon. Says Plotkin, “When the Indians say that the headwaters of a great river is sacred, and when the government of Brazil says they must protect their watersheds, they are essentially speaking the same language. We all have a stake in perpetuating these resources. The map is a win-win situation for everyone concerned.”
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