Modern Maps through Traditional Skills

Original article appears in De Ware Tijd. Written by Mirjam Gommers, Rudo Kemper, Bruce Hoffman.

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For generations, indigenous people will talk about ‘their’ Keeng Kumu. His passion and talent have increased in value, through the enhancement and addition of modern technology. His passion for drawing maps of indigenous areas was supplemented with targeted training and resulted in a professional knowledge exchange.

The lands surrounding the Palmentuin (a historic palm garden in Paramaribo, the capital of the nation of Suriname) have been regarded for centuries as the home of ​​the first indigenous people of Suriname. In this garden, an interview with Keeng Kumu takes place on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. He gives a presentation about the special maps he has made of his habitat. Passion and talent can increase in value when modern technology reinforces and complements these gifts. That is essentially Keeng Kumu’s special story. His passion for drawing maps of indigenous areas has been supplemented with targeted training and has resulted in a professional knowledge exchange.

Special for this occasion, he is dressed in a trendy polo shirt and jeans, but with an indigenous twist: white feathers in his hair, indigenous jewelry, and a painted face. Keeng seems to symbolize the contradictions he wants to integrate in his maps. The old world of indigenous traditions and practices is incorporated into a map using the most modern techniques.

As a member of the Waiwai community who has wanderlust and a passion for mapmaking, learning to use a GPS seemed like a calling to Keeng.  He speaks softly and looks a bit shy. Keeng: “Making maps is the most important thing I have done so far. When I make maps, people come to me asking me to help them make maps of their villages, their area, and their knowledge. I’m not looking for work in the gold mines; I only want to work in the forest. I would like to share my knowledge with everyone, including my children and the next generation.

Keeng Kumu, the youngest of eight brothers and sisters, was born to the Waiwai community of southern Guyana (Konashen). He speaks four languages. ​​In 1985, he arrived in Kwamalasamutu in Suriname as an eighteen-year-old with his Brazilian father. There, after three years, he met his current wife and started a family. He initially had trouble with the local language, Trio, but now speaks it fluently. Before learning modern technologies, he had already made handdrawn maps of his environment, which he has saved. Keeng: “I started to make maps of my own backyard by indicating where the crops were. Then followed the paths and trees around the house. Then, I walked for many, many kilometers to map the whole region.

Through the training of the Amazon Conservation Team Suriname (ACT), Keeng was soon able to lead the production of groundbreaking large-scale maps of indigenous areas. Combining modern technology with the traditional knowledge of indigenous and Maroon communities provides a wealth of information. By mapping not only the borders of the indigenous lands, but also the natural and cultural heritage, as Keeng and his colleagues have done, we can maintain, support and learn from the indigenous and Maroon knowledge for the protection of our natural world, the habitat of the traditional inhabitants of Suriname.

Due to the isolated location of their habitat, the Waiwai from their origins have been fully adapted to what nature has to offer. They hunt, fish and conduct small-scale farming. Keeng has learned how to build a shelter, make a fire, and hunt and fish with tools made exclusively from natural materials. The Waiwai collect sustainable material from nature to build their villages, and are known for their close spiritual, cultural and social relationship with their environment and resources. They are also skilled in the crafting of tools, pottery and even musical instruments.

Survival techniques are also transferred from generation to generation among the Waiwai. When he was 14 years old, Keeng’s father taught him how to make wirari (arrow poison), used for hunting. The “poison” is made up of insects (black ants) and a type of liana that acts as a natural muscle relaxant and paralyzes prey. He also learned to mimic animal calls to lure prey like the tapir, grey-winged trumpeter, spider monkey and black curassow.

The Waiwai are used to traveling for days, despite rain, high humidity and a burning sun. Thus, they also relocate their villages every five to seven years. Upon arrival, an area of ​​forest is stripped, occupied and cultivated for a certain period of time. This piece of land is then abandoned for a new area, and may be fragile until fertility is restored. This practice is crucial for soil rejuvenation in the fragile ecosystem of a tropical rainforest. In short, they live in harmony with nature, which gives them what they need to survive. Prior to moving to Suriname, he lived with a member of his family in Tapuera, Brazil, where four other brothers and sisters lived with him. His grandmother remained in Konashen; he has not seen her for 25 years. Keeng: “I miss her, I want to see her again.” His extended family is spread across Guyana, Brazil and Suriname. Keeng simply followed his father until he was old enough to decide where he would live. In the end, he lived permanently in Suriname ever since.

With ACT, Keeng traveled to other indigenous villages along the Tapanahony and Lawa Rivers to teach the communities how to map their lands. Keeng’s visit to the Matawai area has led to a flourishing exchange of ideas and practices between Maroons and indigenous peoples. Keeng: “The Matawai are like the indigenous people, forest people. When they first saw me, they were very happy. They asked me to help them make a map.” The Matawai became interested in setting up a traditional school in which Keeng and other indigenous people can share their knowledge of traditional forest medicine. In addition to mapmaking, Keeng taught the Matawai how to make a backpack of palm leaves (katari) to replace use of a heavy wheelbarrow or carrying crops on their heads. Keeng: “They also asked me to make fans from dried palm leaves. I made 15 for them. Eventually, they did not want me to leave.” But Keeng also learned from the Matawai. They taught him to plant rice; he ate watermelon for the first time in his life; and he admired the expert way in which they built their boats.

While he is passionate about making his maps, Keeng is also busy documenting and promoting traditional knowledge and usage practices. Since 2015, he has been working with ACT to cultivate bees for the production of sustainable organic honey. Local traditional knowledge about bees will be useful. Keeng: “My father taught me about the different kinds of bees, and how I could best harvest the honey. I now have seven beehives with different types of bees, such as Kinoto Wane, Ururi and Kijapoko, but I would like to expand to 50 hives. If we do it together, and each has 10 hives, we can produce more honey.” Keeng has mapped the locations of beekeeping nests near Kwamalasamutu and is actively involved in the cultivation of bees. The locations of certain animal species, trees and crops are also included in Keeng’s maps. Indeed, the forest is the most important supplier of food, water, medicines and building materials.

In Suriname, the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities with traditional ways of life are seen by many as the key to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Unfortunately, their traditional lifestyle disappears quickly because the younger members of the community, under pressure from modernity and the temptations of city life, are not interested in pursuing traditional practices. Nevertheless, Keeng tries to teach his five children everything he knows. But one system does not have to exclude another; so proves Keeng, who knows how to unite two worlds with his maps. Traditional knowledge can provide unique solutions to environmental issues, such as conservation, sustainable use of resources and adaptation to climate change.

Southern Suriname is endangered by unsustainable logging and gold mining, with often destructive consequences for nature and thus for these traditional communities that are entirely dependent on nature for their living. By 2015, cooperation between indigenous communities, NGOs and the government had been established to protect 7.2 million hectares of forest in southern Suriname, through the so-called South Suriname Conservation Corridor. Looking at our neighboring countries, we see that such collaborations can lead to successful results. In 2011, a law was signed in Colombia that guarantees the rights of isolated indigenous groups to remain free according to their own culture on their ancestral land. This year, in Colombia, through the Amazon Conservation Team, two indigenous protected areas—the Puerto Sábalo Los Monos and Monochoa indigenous reserves—were expanded, and are now connected to the Chiribiquete National Park and the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve. This provides a total of 10 million hectares of nature with protected status.

However, the protection of an area should not impose restrictions on the original inhabitants. When the indigenous communities participate in the conservation of natural resources, they can support the government in their protection. Here, Keeng’s maps and knowledge can be useful. Keeng maps not only the ecosystem services that contribute to health, income and well-being, but also their current use. And he’s not finished yet. “I want to map all the creeks and other forest aspects. I want to put signs in and around the village for tourists. In addition, I would like to go deeper into the cultures of people in Guyana, Brazil and Suriname, their traditions and customs.” In response to the question of what he will be doing in ten years, the now fifty-year-old Keeng says, “Maybe I will have become too old, and will stop doing it.” Let’s hope that his rich worldview and knowledge will help both current and future generations to secure this unique and irreplaceable world heritage.

For more, visit the story map Keeng Kumu: indigenous cartographer

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