Amazon Conservation Team: Preserving Indigenous Cultures and Lands With GPS and Google Maps


The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is an innovative non-profit organization that uses modern technology to preserve traditional indigenous wisdom and lands.

What They Do

Founded by ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin and Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal, the Amazon Conservation Team uses GPS and Google Maps to create detailed ethnographic maps of indigenous territories in the Amazon rainforest. Plotkin explains that, “Westerners map in three dimensions: longitude, latitude, and altitude. Indians think in six: longitude, latitude, altitude, historical context, sacred sites, and spiritual or mythological sites.” In addition to boundaries and place names, these ethnographic maps mark places where the tribes harvest certain types of food, medicine, or building materials. They show historical sites where events of particular importance to the tribe took place, and sacred sites or spots where sacred animals have been spotted.

A sample ethnographic map created with the help of ACT

ACT’s strategy is to “Map, Manage, and Protect” and the maps serve a variety of functions in line with this strategy. First, they help preserve traditional knowledge and spread it more widely among different members of the tribe. Second, they help the tribes establish their legal claim to the land. For example, in Suriname, where there are no indigenous land rights, indigenous tribes are regarded as little more than squatters by the government and are often evicted from ancestral lands. The maps help plot out boundaries of traditional lands and establish their claim to the land. In Brazil, nearly 1/4 of the total area of the Amazon Rainforest is set aside in preserves for indigenous peoples, but they have no title to the land, making their hold on it precarious. Again, the maps help establish their claim and reduce the chance of eviction.

Since its founding in 1995, ACT has helped 29 indigenous tribes map more than 70 million acres of the rainforest, including hundreds of villages and thousands of areas of traditional resource use.

The maps also help indigenous tribes monitor the boundaries of their lands and assist with government efforts to crack down on illegal logging and mining. The tribes use high resolution Google Maps images to watch for changes in the forest that could indicate illegal mines or logging activity.

Plotkin calls this the “sweet spot” between modern technology and indigenous wisdom.

In addition to mapping and monitoring, ACT also assists indigenous cultures with developing culturally appropriate sustainable livelihoods. For example, one of its most successful programs is conducting courses to train indigenous park guards to help patrol and protect the borders of national parks as well as their own indigenous preserves. Training indigenous park guards not only provides those who know the forest best with the opportunity to protect it, it also gives them a steady income dependent on forest conservation, not destruction. To date, ACT has trained more than 250 new guards. In fact, the program was so successful that the government asked ACT to conduct course for non-indigenous guards as well, and ACT now offers a course for primarily non-indigenous park guards twice annually.

A shaman heals a boy at one of ACT's integrated clinics

Another of ACT’s major programs is integrated healthcare, combining traditional indigenous medicine with modern treatment methods. These programs expand healthcare to previously under-served regions of the Amazon and preserve the traditional medicinal practices of the indigenous peoples by apprenticing young people to shamans and “mamas” (female healers), as well as an opportunity for exchange of knowledge between indigenous healers and Western doctors. The program has recently expanded to include integrated schools for indigenous youth that combine subjects such as mathematics and literature with traditional handicrafts, forest ecology, and more.

How You Can Help

ACT’s holistic approach to rainforest conservation and cultural preservation has achieved great results through its combination of modern technology and respect for indigenous wisdom and autonomy. To learn more about ACT’s programs and how you can support their work in the Amazon, visit their official website, or follow them on Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube.

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