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Amazon Tribes Use Mapping Technologies to Empower Cultural Stewardship of Ancestral Lands

I first started working in South America 20 years ago. Without much outdoor experience, survival skills or even a passport, I made plans to explore the remote and virtually unexplored jungles of Guyana. Not only had I never left the U.S., I had never even been camping. Not even as a Girl Scout. While I...

I first started working in South America 20 years ago. Without much outdoor experience, survival skills or even a passport, I made plans to explore the remote and virtually unexplored jungles of Guyana. Not only had I never left the U.S., I had never even been camping. Not even as a Girl Scout. While I didn’t know exactly what I would need in way of supplies, I knew that navigating through a green abyss on foot could not be easy. I also knew I had inherited my mother’s poor sense of direction. Twenty years ago, a journey like this meant a bunch of fold-out maps.

Trekking through the rain forest with a machete in one hand and a map in the other does not make for a leisurely hike. And accurately identifying boundaries? Almost impossible.

But a lot has changed since that time. I now have over a hundred expeditions under my belt, and in 2000 precision GPS navigation became widely available. We’re all familiar with GPS as a way to find our way around by car, but now even more innovative use of this technology is also changing the face of conservation.

Recently, I discovered the far-reaching impacts of GPS technology when I joined The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT). Founded 20 years ago, ACT has always aspired to be at the forefront of introducing and adapting innovation to conservation. ACT has long used GPS to map the traditional lands of local communities living in the Amazon region, focusing on land use, cultural cartography, and monitoring how that land is managed.

Among concrete results, the initiative has yielded comprehensive land-use maps for the Trio and Wayana indigenous communities and the six Maroon communities of Suriname. The maps are used with land-management plans to identify and monitor environmental pressures such as small-scale gold mining and pests threatening agricultural cultivation.

In Brazil, ACT worked with more than 20 indigenous groups to create land-use maps covering more than 44 million acres for tribal use in developing reserve management plans.

But now ACT is undertaking a significant upgrade to our field data collection efforts—and that of our community partners—by introducing Open Data Kit (ODK) smartphone and tablet data collection forms.

Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team
Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team

While the cutting-edge technology is empowering local tribesmen to protect their forests, using First World technologies not designed for indigenous and rain forest people has come with its challenges. Expensive handheld GPS devices are operable only in Western languages, and they feature complex menu options. This requires ACT staff to spend long hours in the field explaining and translating the GPS menu, and then only to train people in marking basic waypoints.

Receipt of field data is also problematic: data transfer frequently takes months, sometimes incompletely.

All of this can change with Open Data Kit.

Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team
Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team

The ODK app can be translated into local languages, and complex forms can be designed targeting specific kinds of data collection. The form can be filled out in an offline context, and when the device comes back in range of a Wi-Fi or data transmission network, the form will automatically be submitted to a server hosted by ACT.

The app is operable on any Android smartphone or tablet device equipped with a GPS unit, meaning that we no longer must purchase dedicated devices for data collection; community members with an Android phone can start collecting data right away.

Endangered Kogi Sacred Sites

The Kogi people and their related tribes live on roughly 14.5 million acres in Colombia’s northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, on legally recognized reserves. Around the margins of the Sierra Nevada is the Línea Negra, the “Black Line,” a chain of 54 pilgrimage sites sacred to the Kogi and once part of their ancestral territories. Most of the associated sites are not currently under Kogi ownership or control—the Kogi were forced to abandon them due to decades of colonization and violent civil conflict—and many are endangered by poorly planned development schemes, megaprojects, mining activity, and/or illicit crop cultivation.

In 2012 ACT and the Kogi began a partnership to acquire and manage their most endangered coastal sacred sites. An essential section of the first of these, Jaba Tañiwashkaka, was purchased in 2013, with subsequent adjacent purchases bringing more than 400 acres of the expanded ancestral site under ancestral management and ecological restoration.

With assistance from the national government, this land was returned to the ownership and stewardship of the Kogi, establishing a precedent for future restoration of their sacred territories.

ACT is teaching the Kogi to use a tailored ODK application to map and inventory their complex network of sacred sites, all of which carry high ecological value. By providing a unified source of cultural and environmental site information, the app helps the Kogi prioritize sacred site recovery within their long-term territorial reclamation process.

Cultural data can be collected in multiple dimensions, enabling the generation of records on ancestral roads, archaeological sites, and petroglyphs and permitting younger members of the Kogi survey team to record oral histories regarding the importance of the sites for transmission to future generations. From an ecological standpoint, the app can capture biodiversity data and allows the Kogi to record the external pressures that threaten these sites.

In February 2016, ACT introduced an ODK form to the ACT-trained Indigenous Park Guards (IPGs) in the Wayana village of Apetina in southern Suriname. IPGs are currently active in four Wayana and Trio villages in Suriname, and routinely conduct wildlife, natural resource, and environmental threat monitoring expeditions around the village and along the rivers and creeks of the Surinamese rain forest.

This ODK form was designed with the specific data collection needs of the IPGs in mind. The available data categories are features which the IPGs regularly record using GPS handhelds and paper forms, such as important natural resources like the Tasi palm used to thatch traditional roofs, environmental threats like leafcutter ants and signs of gold mining activity, and village infrastructure like water taps and buildings.

To further facilitate the data collection process, we’ve added functionality to allow the IPGs to take photos and record audio directly into the ODK form.

ACT field staff trained the Wayana IPGs in ODK and utilized the technology to conduct village mapping and camera trap placement exercises. The younger IPGs were able to download the application and form directly onto their personal smartphones, eliminating the need to carry specialized equipment.

The IPGs in Apetina in Suriname and elsewhere will now be able to conduct their regular monitoring expeditions with the assistance of a form translated into their native language. To facilitate training and understanding we translated the form into five tongues: Dutch, English, the Surinamese lingua franca Sranan Tongo, and the Trio and Wayana languages (translation courtesy of ACT-Suriname’s Maaikē Jaachpi and Michel Nailoepun, respectively).

The technology will eliminate errors in recording, meaning that we will seamlessly and immediately receive data from the field. In March 2016, ACT plans to translate the app into Suriname’s Matawai Maroon language as well.

Into the Future

For all participants, this is a technology with a special capacity to inspire and engage because it produces both immediate and long-term returns; it captures both data and the imagination.

Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team
Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team
Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team
Photograph courtesy of The Amazon Conservation Team

In both pilots, through the ODK innovation, ACT has been able to help native communities gather information they have long sought to demonstrate to the world their special understanding of their local environments and their special competence in managing these lands. And much more potential remains: going forward, with our local partners, ACT plans to apply ODK to community measurement, reporting, and verification (CMRV) in conjunction with national REDD+ initiatives, more sophisticated land use and cultural mapping, and tracking of project indicators.

So the next time you use the navigation system in your car, remember the importance this technology is having on protecting some of the world’s last and most important lands and cultures.

If you would like to learn more about The Amazon Conservation Team or contribute to their work with the Kogis and other indigenous tribes in the Amazon, please visit

Mireya Mayor discovered a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar. Photograph by Mark Thiessen/Courtesy of Mireya Mayor
Photograph by Mark Thiessen/Courtesy of Mireya Mayor

National Geographic explorer, anthropologist, primatologist, and conservationist, Mireya Mayor, joined the Amazon Conservation Team to help communicate news of vital projects and expand global awareness about the plight of the Amazon region, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving South American rainforests. She has more than a decade of scientific fieldwork and conservation related research to her name and is credited with the discovery of the world’s smallest primate while exploring Madagascar. This discovery and Mayor’s research enabled her to persuade the Prime Minister of Madagascar to create a new national park.

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Meet the Author

Mireya Mayor, Ph.D.
Scientist, explorer, wildlife correspondent, and inspirational speaker, Mireya Mayor, a Ph.D. in Anthropology, has reported on wildlife and habitat issues to worldwide audiences for more than a decade. Having dedicated her life to unlocking the mysteries of the natural world, she ventures into previously unexplored parts of the planet to study rare species, working closely with indigenous people in the process. In 2000 Mireya co-discovered a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar. Mireya is the author of Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer, in which she shares her transformation from cheerleader to scientist and her many adventures in the wilds -- including surviving a plane crash, sleeping in jungles teeming with venomous snakes, rappelling down a 14,000-foot sinkhole in search of frogs, and being charged by an irate silverback gorilla. Read more about Mireya on her website. Watch a Nat Geo Live! video of Mireya talking about her life and work.