Tribe Goes High-Tech to Fight for Rain Forest Home

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"The Asmat have lived in harmony with their environment for thousands of years, and have developed appropriate ways of using their natural resources. They are the best stewards of their land."

The mapping project is also meant to raise awareness among the Asmat about where their land begins and ends, allowing them to see their home in a larger context.

"There was a general perception here that our land and resources were vast and almost limitless," Birif said. "An important use of mapping is to raise awareness that our resources are limited, so we need to use them carefully."

Mapping Their Turf

In the canoe, the men paddle to a branch of the Sor River that the Asmat consider sacred. They believe that a great flood filled it with the spirits of their ancestors—and that to fish here or to take down the trees would bring disaster to nearby villages. The river's glassy surface mirrors the surrounding forest in perfect detail.

"Even now our ancestors are still here, and this land, this river, and everything around it is a historic place, a sacred place," Dicim said. He marks the coordinates, and the men row on to the nearby village of Manep.

The heart of every Asmat village is the communal jeu, a one-story house sometimes 100 feet (30 meters) long, made of sago thatch, pole trees, and tree bark. All major decisions are made here. Fireplaces line the walls of the jeu, each one representing a family in the village. They call the fireplaces the lungs of the community.

On arrival at the jeu, the men gather around the central fireplace and lay out their maps. About 80 local villagers file in. In the local Asmat dialect, Dicim announces the borders of each family's land. The villagers shout approval in unison. In this community, consensus is crucial.

The IPCA will enlist a professional cartographer to transfer the GPS coordinates onto digital maps.

The Asmat believe the key to their survival is getting a voice in how their traditional lands are used. The maps help the Asmat stake their claim to their land—and to their lives.

"After the mapping has been finished, the local, regional, national, and even international governments must recognize Asmat traditional lands and must recognize the maps we are making," Dicim said. "This is our struggle."

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