Mapping deep in the jungle: our experience among Saramaccan Peoples

In July 2015 local residents and leaders from 14 indigenous Saramaccan villages, located along the upper Suriname River, collaborated with local and international NGOs to create a physical 3D representation of their traditional land and waters using participatory three-dimensional modelling (P3DM). The mapped area is sparsely populated and characterised by externally-driven logging and mining activities. The mapping process, provided participants with a comprehensive and detailed understanding of the landscape, its interlocked ecosystems, and potential impacts of road development and related extractive activities. This enabled them to formulate informed opinions on how best to develop, preserve and manage the traditional territories.  

The process has highlighted how effective P3DM is when it comes to bottom-up and inclusive landscape planning. Helping communities to build a 3D model of their territory is proving to be an effective way for knowledge held by different individuals to be collated, geo-referenced and visualised, thus generating a powerful pool of data mostly unknown to the outside world. If strategically used, this data could shift the balance of power in favour of those who would otherwise not be included in decision-making processes.

The blog below was written by Nicholas Fields (INTASAVE Caribbean/CARIBSAVE) and Gaitrie Satnarain (CARIBSAVE Associate at the Anton de Kom University of Suriname).

CARIBSAVE was invited by Tropenbos International Suriname (TBI) and CTA to participate in a Participatory three-dimensional modelling (P3DM) exercise, conducted on 21–31 July 2015, as part of the above-mentioned project. Our group included representatives from TBI (including persons of Saramaccan origin), students and staff from the Anton de Kom University of Suriname, and ourselves – representing CARIBSAVE. Sponsored by CTA, our participation in the exercise helped us to understand and appreciate the P3DM process and now enables us to replicate it within our own projects in the Caribbean region. It is our intention to share what we have learned with our colleagues and build capacity within our own organisation.

What is P3DM?

P3DM is an inclusive process of building a physical 3D model of a specific area that details how communities use the natural environment – has demonstrated its significance and practicality beyond rudimentary research and data collection purposes. P3DM has proved to be an effective tool for bringing a diverse group of stakeholders, including representatives from the villages, community-based and non-governmental organisations, technical people and policy-makers, to the table to exchange ideas, perspectives and information; strengthen and build new relationships; support decision-making related to land use; and re-invigorate a desire to protect the environment and to use our resources sustainably for the benefit of current and coming generations.

A long journey to a remote location

On the first day we travelled three hours by bus followed by two hours by canoe to the Saramaccan village of Pikin Slee (which means ‘small village’ – although it is, ironically, one of the most inhabited and visited villages in the Upper Suriname basin) and the neighbouring ecolodge, Pasensie. From the river, the village does look deceptively small, but on traversing inland you can see that the landscape is dotted with variously sized dwellings used for domestic and communal activities. Saramaccan way of life is modest, with irregular access to amenities that one would have in the city (with the exception of smartphone/mobile devices, which are abundant).

Mapping the environment

We were warmly welcomed by the villagers upon arrival. The next five days were extremely busy assembling the blank model – that is a plain, white, three-dimensional canvas prior to any painting, drawing or pinning. The blank canvas is comprised of stacked layers of foam board material, with each layer representing an altitude interval, and shaped according to the specific altitude contour. The result is a scaled and geo-referenced three-dimensional canvas of hills, valleys, plains and depressions of the real-life landscape. The actual size of the area modelled was approximately 2,232 km2 and, with a horizontal scale of 1:15,000, the model developed into a rather large construction, involving five tables of approximately 1.6 x 1.2 m each.

Model construction is exciting as well as intensive, and the teenagers from a village-based school who took part in this process would certainly agree on this! The facilitators helped the students to trace each contour onto the foam boards, cutting these accordingly and affixing each layer of board to the model. Once the foam boards were cut according to the contours and stacked, the model was covered with plaster to allow for painting, which is perhaps the most labour-intensive component of the process, requiring precision, accuracy and careful attention to detail. The team had some initial challenges with matching and/or aligning contour maps, foam board pieces and uneven table tops, as well as working with the foam board itself. Understanding the nature of the problems, considering possible corrections and subsequent improvement was an important part of the learning process.

Mapping the knowledge

The next phase of the exercise, which took another 4–4½ days, involved populating the blank model with data on land cover and use (e.g. forests, agricultural land), locations of villages and estimated populations, and types and locations of activities associated with the villages and their inhabitants. The map legend – outlining what features would be located and visualised on the model – was finalised beforehand by the facilitators and representatives from the different villages located within the modelled area.  

This stage was the most crucial and sensitive. Local residents and leaders had full autonomy entering data on the model at this point. This helped building buy-in and ownership of the process by the villagers, and minimising interference or perception of bias by the facilitators. Local residents spearheaded the process of identifying and marking features, place names and locations of activities. The facilitators (mainly the TBI team members of Saramaccan origin) offered only moderate guidance, taking care not to influence the direction of discussion except in the interest of maintaining consistency in the use of legend items, scale, focus and time, or mediating diverging opinions when these arose. Only agreed data were placed on the model. Specific locations and activities of cultural, spiritual or – in some cases – economic significance were not visualised, in the locals’ interest of protecting their security and inviolability.  


Despite the fact that locals were given autonomy at this stage, some of them were distrustful of the process, fearing possible coercion, exploitation and vested interests by outsiders. The presence and interaction of the Saramaccan facilitators in the TBI team helped to alleviate most of these fears. Still, it was intriguing to observe the sometimes animated dialogue between locals as they detailed various parts of the model – indicating primary and secondary forest areas, tracks and paths, and places of work, domestic and recreational use.

We learned a lot there by observing and implementing the P3DM activity. And the strong multi-cultural element added another dimension. The indigenous Maroon groups were working with their own set of norms, practices and structures, which were very different to those that the external facilitators were used to. Including the participants and facilitators, the 10-day exercise brought together people of at least five nationalities and ethnic groups. At any given time during the activities, there were at least three languages at play: chief of these being Saramaccan, Dutch and English, with intercessions in Spanish and Arkans. While there were some slight communication barriers, none was too difficult to overcome – in fact, this made the experience much more amusing, and there were several side-lessons in foreign language vocabulary. There is no doubt that the group of facilitators also learned much over the two weeks, and established new personal and working relationships to build on in the future.

This P3DM exercise took dedication and was a large undertaking. Significant time and resources were required to co-ordinate and complete the model, particularly when the diversity of players and relative remoteness of the beneficiary groups are taken into consideration. However, the benefits of the exercise – first-hand participation in P3DM, learning and exchanging new information, connecting with people and building new rapports – were outstanding and will be long-lasting. The students’ participation also played an important educational role. We hope that they were able to appreciate the purpose of the model and will take forward what they learned from this process as they become leaders in the future.

Further impact: applying the knowledge gained

Since taking part in the exercise, CARIBSAVE has incorporated the P3DM methodology into one of its project proposals. It is planning to use the P3DM methodology for a participatory flooding hazard mapping and zoning exercise, as part of a larger comprehensive disaster management initiative. Through this exercise, community residents would produce a model that details flooding risk areas, vulnerable persons, infrastructure and emergency facilities as the basis for developing a community response plan.

Gaitrie Satnarain from Anton de Kom University intends to further what she has gained from the exercise by incorporating P3DM as a research tool within her upcoming doctoral study proposal. At the Anton de Kom University of Suriname, the Infrastructure Department in the Faculty of Science and Technology will also discuss potential opportunities with TBI to incorporate and promote P3DM for landscape planning research. CARIBSAVE will continue to explore and incorporate the P3DM methodology into its future projects to support building knowledge and capacity in climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and sustainable ecosystem protection and management – especially to benefit vulnerable and otherwise-marginalised groups it works with.

Who is involved?

P3DM in Suriname is led by TBI, as part of a joint multi-scale initiative to model ecosystem services and land-use scenarios in the Upper Suriname River basin (see here), in conjunction with WWF Guianas, the University of Utrecht, and the Association of Saramacca Authorities (Vereniging van Saramakaanse Gezagsdragers [VSG]). The initiative is supported by CTA and the UNDP GEF-Small Grant Programme. Through this initiative, TBI aims “to contribute to improved understanding of the impacts of modern-day human interventions on forests, landscapes and people”. One of the project's results was the construction of a number of physical 3D models to visualise and assess human-environment interactions, particularly in the Upper Suriname River basin, which is inhabited by several indigenous Maroon villages and is also the focus of local and external logging and mining extractive activities.

The enabling power of participatory 3D mapping among the Saramaccan Peoples of Suriname (part 1 & 2) from CTA on Vimeo.

Online resources on Participatory Geographic Information Systems (PGIS), including Participatory 3D Modelling (P3DM)

• Visit CTA's PGIS website
• View a map of the world with locations and details of known P3DM exercises
• Visit the website on Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development (IAPAD)

Stay connected

• Join the e-discussion around PGIS in English
• Are you interested in promoting the use of PGIS for adding value to traditional knowledge, empowering grassroots and conducting participatory land use planning in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries? Join us on Twitter @PGISatCTA and like ourFacebook page.

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