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Rainforest Maps Help Protect Indian Lands

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is helping South America Indians to map, manage, and protect their ancestral lands. The maps of sections of southern Suriname and adjacent Brazil record for the first time the names of villages, rivers, mountains, and sacred places utilized and honored by four tribes - the Tirio, Kaxuyana, Wayana, and Apalai - who live in the remote rainforests of the northeast Amazon.

The maps - actually made by the Indians themselves - document 20 million acres of tropical forest and should help protect these lands from outsiders hoping to exploit the resources. Furthermore, these regions also include the headwaters of several major rivers; protecting them will ensure water quality for the peoples who live downstream as well. The Indians are already using the maps as incipient management plans to better utilize local resources, such as Brazil nuts.

ACT was the main organizer of the project, and collaborated closely with the governments of Brazil and Suriname as well as the Indians themselves. The main partner in Brazil was the Bureau of Indian Affairs (FUNAI) while in Suriname it was the National Cartographic Agency (CBL), and the project was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

A major goal of the effort was to meld ancient shamanic wisdom and knowledge of the landscape (everything from sacred sites to mythological creatures) to 21st century technology (e.g., satellite photos, handheld global positioning systems). Indians covered every inch of their difficult, and biodiverse territories, collecting GPS data. Tribal elders provided names for features that had been broad blank spots on earlier maps. Another 100 million acres in other parts of the Amazon may also be charted.

"The results are much more than mere maps, since the Indians are using them to manage, protect, and to educate," said ACT President Mark Plotkin.

His comments were echoed by Apalai Chief Joao Arana, "The white man has the Bible and other books to learn about his ancestors. We now have our maps to teach our children."

ACT, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Virginia, was founded in 1995 to work with indigenous peoples to preserve their ancient wisdom and cultures, and the lands that sustain them. ACT has also mapped regions in Columbia and more than a million acres in Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Reserve. Another ACT initiative, the Shaman's Apprentice Program, brings tribes' young people together with traditional shamans and other elders to become the healers and environmental guardians of the future. ACT's programs are detailed on its website <>.

For its efforts, ACT was added last year to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Roll of Honour for outstanding contributions to the protection of the environment. The award, initiated in 1987, has honored 727 individuals and groups, including ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, primate researcher Jane Goodall, and the World Wildlife Fund. The Global 500 Forum may be accessed online at <>.

-Karen Robin

[Source: Amazon Conservation Team. New map helps protect ten million acres of rainforest. [online press releases] 2003 Jan. <>.]