On the Way to the Matawaai

Author: 
Steven Leeflang
Date: 
Sunday, February 15, 2015

Since the early 1990’s, ACT has worked with indigenous peoples to create ethnographic maps of their traditional lands. These maps not only catalog important locations for indigenous communities, but also serve in the ongoing dialogue over land rights for indigenous and Maroon peoples. On February 10, Keeng Koemoe (village of Kwamalasamutu), Rudo Kemper (ACT Headquarters), and Niradj Hanoeman (student at the Anton de Kom University) traveled to the Matawaai territory to train local communities in ethnocartography.

Keeng was one of the first indigenous cartographers to partner with ACT to produce such maps, and he understands the cultural and environmental importance of this work.

“I want this region to remain intact,” Koemoe said. “We don’t have stores here, so if I want meat, I must hunt. If I am sick, I have to go look for medicine in the forest.”

He also recognizes the impact the maps could have to protect the territory.

“We can still drink from the creeks and rivers here,” Keeng said. “That has to stay this way, and so we cannot allow Brazilian goldminers to come here. The government must use our maps to keep this land safe.”

Keeng's old Trio ethnomap from 1989. Click to enlarge

Keeng’s original efforts laid the groundwork for ACT’s continued partnership with the Trios and Wayanas in Suriname’s rainforest interior. The Trios, the largest indigenous tribe in southwestern Suriname, made the first ethnographic maps of the Suriname-Brazil border region. In a process called participatory mapping, ACT worked with these communities to identify the locations of important geographical and cultural features, such as villages, camps, and land-use patterns. Additionally, areas with valuable biodiversity, unusual historical or spiritual value, and economic zones were marked. Together with local communities, ACT charted more than five million hectares of forest and catalogued other relevant information for the community.

Keeng has also helped map other territories, including the Brazilian Tumucumaque—an area that required chopping through miles of forest and traveling remote rivers. His maps depict natural features, as well as areas of cultural importance such as traditional hunting grounds. Because of his bold commitment to this work, he is one of ACT’s foremost mapping allies.

Dutch version can be read on the ACT Suriname website.