Putting South Suriname on the Map

How can remote Surinamese communities living deep in the rainforest protect their livelihoods? One way may be through a surprising activity: making maps.

villagers examine map in Sipaliwini, Suriname

Residents of Sipaliwini, Suriname examine a map produced by their community which identifies which areas are the most important for subsistence, income and other values. (© Milton Kam)

Suriname is the smallest country in South America, but also one of the greenest on Earth. More than 90% of its land (around 15 million hectares, or 37 million acres) is covered by rainforest, and the country boasts some of the world’s most unique plants and animals, including harpy eagles, poison dart frogs, sloths and jaguars.

The south of Suriname is home to much of this biodiversity, and is often described as one of the last blocks of undisturbed tropical forest on Earth. It is sparsely populated by small indigenous communities, mainly of the Trio and Wayana tribes, who play an important role in maintaining the area’s natural wealth.

agricultural plot in Sipaliwini, Suriname

Agricultural plot on the edge of the forest in Sipaliwini, Suriname. (© Milton Kam)

The region’s immense forest cover helps mitigate the effects of climate change and regulate the flow of water to the Tapanahony and Marowijne rivers. But mining, hydroelectric dams, road construction and other potential infrastructure development represent future threats to these villages and to Suriname’s ecosystems.

CI-Suriname has been working with communities from five villages in southern Suriname to create maps of ecosystem services in areas essential to their well-being. The maps are an important tool for stimulating dialogue between the villages and decision-makers.

The project has taken place in the villages of Sipaliwini, Apetina, Tepu, Kawemhakan and Palumeu. All adult villagers who were willing and able to take part were asked to circle all the places that are important for their well-being on a map of the area. They used different colors to indicate four categories: areas important for culture, subsistence, economy and for future generations. This led to the creation of five maps — one which shows the density of overall use and four maps showing the density of use for these specific categories.

villagers in Suriname map ecosystem services

Community members in the village of Sipaliwini circle areas on a map that are most important to them for culture, subsistence, economy and future generations. (© Milton Kam)

It was very interesting to see how different villages connect to the landscape and what they consider to be important. When we first did this exercise in Sipaliwini, we asked the villagers what was important to them. They ended up making a list of over 90 types of birds which are found in the nearby savanna. When we asked villagers in Apetina and Kawemhakan the same question, they immediately said “water.” In Tepu and Palumeu, the villagers attached importance to their mountains.

In the final phase the maps were first verified by the village and ultimately handed over to them as their property. The maps for the last of these villages were completed last month.

CI asked villagers about their views on the maps and how they should be used.

tribal chief of Kawemhakan, Suriname

Granman Miep, the tribal chief of Kawemhakan, one of the five villages in which the mapping project has been conducted. (© CI/photo by Roald Tjon)

In the words of Granman Miep, tribal chief of Kawemhakan, “These maps are especially useful for the people in the village. It will help us to better understand the places that are important for things such as hunting and culture.”

Kapitein Mozes, one of the tribal heads in Tepu, said: “It’s very important that outsiders such as timber companies and miners know about these maps. They need to know how the people here live.”

Albert, a park ranger in the village of Tepu, strongly believes in informing future generations: “The maps should be placed in the krutu oso [village meeting center] so that the children of Tepu can learn from the map about how big the territory of their village is and which areas are important to us.

CI’s work is focused on putting these villages “on the map” in order to make sure they have a say in the way the area is managed. The government of Suriname has already shown interest in these maps, and is exploring ways to use the information for spatial planning and the development of land management actions in harmony with local people’s needs. Furthermore, the data can be overlaid with other data layers for conservation planning, landscape-change analysis and environmental impact assessments.

map of the most important natural areas surrounding Sipaliwini, Suriname

Map of Sipaliwini, Suriname that includes the importance of surrounding areas for all four categories. The map is color-coded on a scale ranging from intense use by communities (dark green) to most intense use (red). Click on the map to enlarge it. (map courtesy of Roald Tjon)

The creation of these maps is part of the south Suriname project, which also conducts expeditions to fill in gaps in biodiversity data. These expeditions are being carried out with support from the Harbers Family Foundation. The ultimate goal of the project is to protect the “natural capital” of this area which will help to encourage sustainable management of the entire Guiana Shield and mitigate global climate change.

At one point during the mapping exercise in Kawemhakan, several little boys came running into the krutu oso playing with wooden planes. It dawned on me that none of these kids had ever seen a car before. I had forgotten just how remote these villages are, with no roads, cars or motorcycles. Instead, their assets are the natural ones that surround them — making the protection of these ecosystems all the more important.

Roald Tjon is the communications coordinator for CI-Suriname.

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