Mapping the traditional lands of the Matawai Maroons in Suriname, one creek at a time

Rudo Kemper
Thursday, June 23, 2016

In 2015, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) began conducting participatory mapping fieldwork with the Matawai Maroons residing in ten villages along the upper Saramacca River of central Suriname.  The process has been deeply enriching to all parties, with remarkable products. 

Suriname’s Maroons are descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who fled from coastline plantations during the time of Dutch colonial rule, over three centuries ago. They traveled far along the ascending rivers leading southward until they were safe from Dutch raiders who sought to recapture them. There, they established thriving settlements and won their right to peacefully exist in the interior.

Of the six primary Maroon groups today, the Matawai are one of the smallest and least known. Their present-day population is estimated to be around 2000, dispersed across twenty-one villages along the Saramacca River. The Matawai subsist primarily on fishing, agriculture, and hunting, although participating in trade and markets in Suriname's capital city of Paramaribo has been commonplace since the early days as well.

Approximate extent of Matawai Maroon territory in Suriname. Click to enlarge.

Many changes are taking place in the Matawai community and landscape. Since the 1970s, Matawai have increasingly left their homes to go look for work elsewhere, leaving some villages deserted. With the rapid expansion of gold mining in the 1990s, the northern part of the Matawai territory was one of the most affected by small-scale gold mining, which both pollutes and destroys sections of the ecosystem and causes rifts in the community. In the southern portion of the upper Saramacca River region, where gold mining has yet to take place, a road is being constructed to connect the ten villages located there to the national transportation network (link to newspaper article in Dutch.). At the time of writing, the road is only 12 kilometers away from the villages and is slated to be completed sometime this autumn. In addition, a community forest zone was granted to the community by the government in late 2015, giving them management rights over a 100,000-hectare region. The Matawai of the upper Saramacca are both anxious and hopeful about what these rapid new developments may mean for them and their livelihoods.

A chapter discussing the impact of small-scale gold mining on the livelihoods of the Matawai community, from our Amazon Gold Rush: Gold Mining in Suriname online map journal published in October 2015.

ACT was solicited in 2014 by a local Matawai foundation, Stichting Avittiemauw, to help train the community members to map their own lands and plan appropriately for these changes. Avittiemauw, which is administered by Matawai living in the villages and in Paramaribo, received grant money from the UNDP Small Grants Programme and the Suriname Conservation Foundation to implement a large-scale sustainable development project focusing on land use and zonal mapping, sustainable livelihoods and entrepreneurship, and capacity building.

The mapping component focuses on contemporary land use, zonal demarcation, and territorial planning, as well as on recording and documenting the vast historical and cultural knowledge of the Matawai about their territory. ACT’s role in the project is to train the community to use data collection tools such as handheld GPS units and applications like Open Data Kit (ODK); to collect baseline data for mapping; and to compile comprehensive maps visualizing land use, the historical and current-day extent of the Matawai territory, and desired future developments.

When we first traveled to the Matawai lands in February 2015 to begin our fieldwork, we had very little in the way of usable—much less accurate—spatial data.  For a baseline, we brought along some very preliminary maps of the Matawai lands made with old inherited data.

ACT-Suriname Director Minu Parahoe discussing the long legacy of ACT's work conducting participatory mapping with indigenous and Maroon communities during our first krutu. She is describing a hand-drawn map made in 1989 by the indigenous cartographer Keeng Kumu from Kwamalasamutu. Click to enlarge.

In Pusugrunu, a village in the upper Saramacca region where the Matawai granman (chieftain) resides, we hosted an official krutu (meeting) with the community to explain the nature and purpose of our project, and invited our audience to examine the maps. Following a few moments of silent observation, some of the Matawai began to snicker, and eventually broke out into full-blown laughter. It turned out that our maps had placed villages on the wrong side of the river, butchered a variety of place names, and positioned cultivation plots kilometers away from their actual location, in one case on the wrong side of a mountain range. Needless to say, we realized that we had a lot of work to do.

Matawai women from the villages of Boslanti and Vertrouw showing their hand-drawn map with local Matawai names for roughly 50km of the Saramacca River. Click to enlarge.

Every day of this initial month-long fieldwork expedition, we collected data and trained community members. In the mornings, we visited the villages to collect spatial and demographic data, and in the afternoons held workshops in the use of GPS handhelds. On off days, we visited the numerous shifting cultivation plots or gardens in the area, making a note of how long the gardens are utilized and how long they are left fallow, and recording information about non-timber forest products (NTFPs) along the way.

During the final week, we traveled with a Matawai elder far upriver and south of the last Matawai village, into the historical territory where the Matawai, together with the Saamaka Maroons, first settled when they decided to take their destiny into their own hands. To the untrained eye, the beautiful stretches of verdant rainforest along the headwaters of the hitherto unmapped Saramacca and Tukumutu rivers might seem pristine, but this landscape was once scattered with Maroon villages now abandoned for centuries. The contemporary Matawai still travel to this region to hunt and to find proper timber for making canoes, and still know the names and traditional stories of countless creeks, rapids, and places of significance. Our team was honored to have been given permission to help document the fascinating history of this landscape.

ACT geographer Rudo Kemper with William Anipa, a Matawai elder whose knowledge of the Matawai landscape is renowned. Click to enlarge.

By expedition’s end, we had collected GPS data for every structure in all ten villages, for almost every creek, rapid, and island along a 100-kilometer stretch of river, and for nearly all of the present-day cultivation or agricultural plots in the region. We then looked back at our legacy maps, and shared the mirth of our community partners. 

Upon returning to Paramaribo, we immediately began processing and visualizing the data in order to produce preliminary maps to bring back to the community in a few months. What’s more, we had a more comprehensive assignment to fulfill: on our last day in the Matawai lands, the granman had personally requested that we use all of the data that we collected to make a comprehensive and aesthetically appealing regional map showing the extent of the upper Saramacca region with detailed local names of places and creeks, agricultural plots, and important features in the villages like krutu houses and ceremonial poles known as faaka pau.

Traditional Matawai agricultural garden with crops like wild rice, plantain, pepper, watermelon, and cassava. Click to enlarge.

This latter task—converting collected GPS points into a full-fledged regional map, with details both clearly visible at multiple scales and fully legible to people who may have only seen one or two maps in their entire lives—was a tough nut. Certainly we could map the region’s hydrology, and situate the Matawai villages on the right side of the river this time, but how would we depict landmarks in the relatively small villages that appear only as pixels in Google Earth or Landsat imagery, or visualize aspects with a temporal scale such as shifting cultivation?  

Thankfully, ACT has partnerships with some of the world’s leading providers of spatial data including forest cover loss data and satellite imagery, which tremendously eases the labor involved in producing maps that can be understood by everyone, including by residents of the rainforest.

Our friends and partners at Global Forest Watch (GFW), a dynamic online forest monitoring and alert system curated by the World Resources Institute, provide a variety of different datasets including forest cover, land use, tree cover loss alerts, and annual forest cover change data. The forest cover change data, known as Global Forest Change and produced by Dr. Matthew Hansen’s lab at the University of Maryland, is derived from time-series analyses of Landsat satellite images (30m resolution), and breaks down forest cover gain and loss on a yearly basis. This dataset is an excellent source for analyzing deforestation across the Amazon basin, and is used by ACT for a variety of mapping purposes including the measurement and analysis of gold mining activity across Suriname.

When we looked at this forest cover change data for the undisturbed and remote upper Saramacca River region, and compared it with our GPS data from the field, we realized that the local forest cover loss is being caused exclusively by one factor: shifting cultivation. The GPS data for cultivation plots matched up exactly with the latest pixels of forest cover loss detected by the GFW/UMD data; moreover, the latter data, which begins in the year 2000, also provides some historical resolution regarding cultivation patterns. This enabled us to show not only the geographical extent of these small-scale agricultural plots instead of just the incomplete set of points collected in the field, but also the historical patterns of shifting cultivation in the region.

Global Forest Watch screenshot showing tree cover loss and gain in central Suriname. In the central portion of the map view, cultivation around the upper Saramacca area can be seen. Along the right side of the image, you can see cultivation activity of the much larger Saamaka Maroon community, as well as the beginnings of the construction of the road to Pusugrunu, which is currently at a much more advanced stage. Click to enlarge.

Through ACT’s partnership with DigitalGlobe, the leading provider of visual information about the Earth, ACT receives access to Amazon rainforest imagery captured by DigitalGlobe’s very high resolution commercial satellites, with a resolution of up to 30cm per pixel and updated on a near-real-time basis; by contrast, freely available imagery from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite resolves only to 15 meters. The access allows ACT to effectively map and analyze forest cover change, village extent, land use, and ecosystem services at a level of unprecedented detail.

WorldView-2 (50cm) imagery showing one of the ten Matawai villages in the region. Click to enlarge.

And as good fortune would have it, imagery for the upper Saramacca region revealing the ten villages at 50cm resolution became available from DigitalGlobe shortly upon returning from the field. We marveled as our village mapping GPS data took on a new life when overlaid over this imagery, and were now able to label the important buildings and features clearly visible in the imagery.

Using a combination of field data collected in collaboration with the Matawai community and these state-of-the-art remote sensing and imagery resources, we created large-scale poster maps that for the first time visualize the upper Saramacca Matawai territory from the local perspective. We’ve brought these maps back to the community several times for validation and further data collection. And when we brought the layered maps to a follow-up krutu in Pusugrunu last year, the community’s reaction was not one of levity, but of wonder and excitement to see their lands brought to life in two dimensions.

Matawai together with ACT-Suriname staff show earlier versions of the maps in Pusugrunu, September 2015. Click to enlarge.

Community members examining and validating the maps in Pusugrunu, March 2016. Click to enlarge.

Community Map for the Matawai Maroons along the Upper Saramacca River, June 2016.

This map poster features field data collected by the community, Global Forest Watch forest change data to show cultivation activity in the region, and includes village maps for all ten of the villages using high resolution WorldView-2 imagery courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

To learn more about ACT's work with the Matawai, see the following articles: