Saramakan’s forests: watercourses at the core of a participatory 3D modelling exercise along the upper Suriname River

JAW JAW, SURINAME, 6 September 2014. From Atjoni, Suriname, it takes 40 minutes by motorised longboat to reach Jaw Jaw, a village sprinkled along the shores of the mighty upper Suriname River. This area is home to approximately 17,000 Afro-Surinamese people belonging to the Saramakan tribe. These people survive on shifting cultivation, fishing, hunting, harvesting of timber and non-timber forests products, boat transport services, government employment and remittances from outside the area.

Over a 10-day period some 100 representatives from 14 villages (representing a population of approximately 5,000 people) bordering the Suriname River downstream of the village of Lespansi worked together to assemble a stunning 1:15,000 scale three-dimensional (3D) physical map of an area covering approximately 2,160 km2. Youngsters (mainly girls) from Jaw Jaw village assembled the blank model under the guidance of representatives from Tropenbos International Suriname and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA). Saramakan adults (men and women), including elders, populated the model with 38 types of feature they consider relevant for their orientation, livelihoods and culture.   

With free prior and informed consent obtained from community representatives, the datasets were captured using high-resolution digital photography and will be digitised and imported into a GIS environment held in trust by Tropenbos.   

In the process of populating the 3D model with information, it appeared that – in the absence of outstanding landmarks like hills or mountains  (the mapped area is relatively flat) – the Saramaka used water courses to orient themselves on the map. Hence, they first had to discuss and reach general consensus on the location and names of all watercourses in the areas they were concerned with. This led them to identify five types of watercourses, differentiated according to width, navigability and seasonal accessibility by boat.  

On Saturday, 6 September 2014, representatives of the local communities presented their work to representatives of government agencies (the Ministry of Regional Development, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries, the Commission on Ordering of the Gold Mining Sector in Suriname [OGS] and the Foundation for Forest Management and Production Control [SBB]),CTA, the Foundation for Development of the Hinterlands (FOB) and non-governmental organisations (WWF-GuianasTropenbos International Suriname, Amazon Conservation Team [ACT], the Association of Indigenous Village Chiefs in Suriname [VIDS]), community-based organisations (Wan Mama Pikin and The Association of Saramaka Authorities [VSG]), the private sector (Lodgeholders upper Suriname River [LBS]) and the national media (DWT and Surinaamse Televisie Stichting [STVS]).   

The local community representatives presented the 3D map and explained the process that led to the formulation of the map legend and its fine-tuning and updating and described the animated discussions that led to the population of the blank model. Proudly, they stated that the model will be hosted within one of their villages that is easily accessible to outsiders to facilitate negotiations and planning processes. The villagers now consider the 3D model as a tool for planning their own development and interacting with developers, investors and policy makers.   

The head of Jaw Jaw village, Mr Erwin Fonkel, made a key point in his interview with STVS TV: “I find this mapping exercise very important, because in the past we did some mapping but failed to include a lot of information. Now we have elaborated the map ourselves and we had a stronger voice on defining its content. In maps produced in the past several important locations, creeks and places where you can find resources and generate income, were not included.”   

The Productive Landscape Programme of Tropenbos International Suriname and the Capacity Building Strategy for Land Use Planning in Suriname of WWF Guianas will use the 3D model to involve stakeholders in elaborating land-use scenarios and conducting participatory assessments of ecosystem services. As anticipated by several local captains, the 3D model, now under the custodianship of the Saramaka people, will be used to elaborate proposals for investments in local infrastructure and sustainable development such as electrification and ecotourism.

This activity took place in the context of the project "Modelling trade-offs between land-use scenarios and ecosystem services in the upper Suriname River area". The participatory mapping component was conceived to empower local communities to have a voice and play an active role in managing their land and natural resources and decision-making processes that affect these.

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