The Matsés inhabit the very heart of the Amazon Rainforest, an area of staggering natural beauty and almost inconceivable biodiversity, but a land deeply troubled and beset with threats from logging and multinational petroleum companies. It is one of the last frontiers.
Acaté Amazon Conservation and the Matsés mapped the Matsés ancestral territory in Peru, an approximate 1 million hectares.
Before the Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative, the only maps of the Matsés territories were created by and for the purposes of national governments or extractive industries. The maps contain vast blank areas on the map punctuated by small dots representing the current politically-recognized settlements. Only the largest rivers are named, in Spanish. This is not how the Matsés, the original inhabitants, and caretakers of these lands, view or understand their rich and vast ancestral landscape.
In this initiative, the Matsés are creating for the first time maps of their lands in their own language, recording the names of their rivers, cultural and historical landmarks including ancestral villages and burial sites as well as many other areas of vital ecological significance such as secluded mineral licks called mactac that attract game animals and birds. With the Matsés having their own maps that define the true boundaries and utilization of their traditional territory, they are better able to protect their land from outside encroachment.
It is a sad reality today, that just a few short decades since the initiation of sustained contact with the outside world, most of the Matsés youth know only the recently given Spanish names of the rivers. Prior to the GPS Mapping project, much of the Matsés ancestral knowledge of their lands rested only in memories of the elders.
CULTURAL PRESERVATION & BICULTURALISM
David W. Fleck, Ph. D. is the field coordinator for Acaté and also a leading expert on Matsés culture having first encountered the Matsés 25 years ago. An accomplished linguist who once turned down a faculty position at a prestigious university to live with the Matsés, he has published almost 30 scientific publications on Matsés language, culture, and ethnobiology. Ultimately, he married a Matsés woman and is now the proud father of two young boys. He lived full-time among the Matsés for a decade, farming a small chacra and living a traditional jungle lifestyle.
We asked David to contribute to our journal and the result is a fascinating and refreshing piece titled 'Matses Cultural Preservation and Biculturalism' - we highly recommend a read!
We also asked David to elaborate some more on the GPS project and how this acts as an example of how two cultures are meeting and working together, transmitting ancestral knowledge, 21st century style.
'Indigenous mapping initiatives involve training residents to use GPS receivers and to record data in notebooks for generating maps of their territory boundaries and localities of cultural, historical and ecological significance. It’s a good thing, but it’s not new and has been done for decades with other indigenous groups. Acaté’s innovation to the methodology was to try teaching Matses to use computers and cartography software to process the data and produce the maps themselves. They had never used computers before and the cartography software being particularly complex, we naturally expected that they would only learn enough to get an idea of how one produces a map, and that in the end we would have to make the maps for them.
Boy, were we wrong! Two of the three Matses field coordinators learned so quickly, that they are much better at using the software than me. In fact, for the management plan that must be submitted to the Peruvian government to legally export sustainable forest products, the Matses cartographers themselves collected and processed the data and generated the maps. The other cool thing about this project is that in the process of collecting the data, the elders that form part of the sampling expedition teams are teaching the younger members a wealth of knowledge about the historical and ecological geography of their territory.'
David W. Fleck, Ph.D. Field Coordinator - Acaté Amazon Conservation.