Tribal people using GPS to protect their lands

From the rainforests of central Africa to the Australian outback, indigenous people armed with GPS devices are surveying their territories and producing maps they can use to protect them from logging and other outside development.

These days, across the rainforests of central Africa and in South America, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the new weapon of choice for defending community lands against outsiders is digital mapping technology. The aim is to produce maps that governments cannot ignore and that will help inhabitants to claim legal ownership of their lands and to fight back against ministers and officials intent on handing over their forests to loggers, mining companies, and other outside exploiters.

In a largely unheralded technological revolution, thousands of forest dwellers have been trained in how to combine their old ways of marking and remembering territory, in which a boundary might be “the big tree by the river two days’ walk away,” with digitized mapping techniques. “It is becoming a powerful tool of advocacy,” says Georges Thierry Handja, the Cameroonian technical advisor for the Rainforest Foundation UK, a Western NGO active in the field.
Consider events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. There, in the aftermath of a long civil war, the government is currently zoning its forests — which cover as much as 316 million acres, an area nearly the size of France, Germany and Spain combined — in preparation for their mass allocation to logging companies. Old European timber conglomerates want to reactivate their concessions, some dating back almost to the brutal days more than a century ago when the entire country was run by King Leopold of Belgium. Logging newcomers from Malaysia and China also want a slice of the action.
Faced with the threat of losing their lands, both Bantu farmers and indigenous hunters in the western province of Bandundu, a center of rubber harvesting in Leopold’s time, have been mapping their forests. Each community has produced an initial sketch map of their area. Then more than 400 volunteers from 200 remote villages, all trained by Handja and his colleagues to use GPS handsets, have traveled for days by boat or on foot to record the precise locations of important points on their sketch maps — not least the boundaries of their territories.

“When communities are involved in mapping their lands,” Handja says, “they can play an important part in the conservation, management and development of forests.” The Bandundu mapping project, supported by the British government through the Rainforest Foundation, was last year’s runner up in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards for “socially responsible design in solving the world’s complex problems.”

The Congo project is part of a wider movement now occurring from the rainforests of Guyana, to the Australian outback, to the boreal forests of Canada’s native communities — and even in the urban slums of India. The idea, which some trace back to community action in the South Bronx in the

The idea is to enable local people to document their areas and advocate for them — whether fighting off loggers or real estate developers.

1990s, is to enable local people to document their own areas and advocate for them — whether fighting off loggers or real estate developers.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), forest mapping is intensely political. The community mappers hope they can successfully challenge a rival zoning process being funded by the U.S. government and run by the U.S. Forest Service for the DRC government. This zoning project is a preparation for handing out new logging rights in untouched forests.

The official mapping does not require anyone to go into the field — or even to set foot in the Congo. It uses remote sensing imagery without any “community truthing.” It ignores the customary land rights of the forest communities.

In theory, the government’s macro-zoning and the community micro-mapping could be complementary. But in practice they are in direct competition, said one insider close to the zoning process, who did not want to be named. The projects embody entirely different ideas about who should control the forests. This person told me: “The zoning commission does not make any reference to communities and their participatory mapping. The idea is that once the forest has been zoned and allocated to loggers, then the new concession holders will have the job of organizing how and whether forest communities can live within the zones.”

If the zoning proceeds on this basis, it would be a travesty of fairness. But it may not. An agreement has been reached on a new DRC law that would establish community rights to forests and define how communities can use their own mapping to get formal title. Activists say the new law has been sitting on the desk of the prime minister for many months, but that he has not yet submitted it to the parliament to become law. Meanwhile the zoning process that would, in effect, negate those community rights is going ahead.

Cath Long of the London-based NGO Well Grounded, which helps forest communities, recently visited Bandundu. “All of the forest belongs to different clans, with clearly delineated boundaries between clan lands,” she says. With community maps digitized, “it should be relatively straightforward for communities to enter into the process of claiming a formal title.” The question is: will it happen?

Similar questions dog enthusiastic mappers elsewhere in the world. In February, 20 farming and fishing communities of the indigenous Wapichan people in the South American nation of Guyana announced the completion of their own digital mapping of three million acres of traditional forests, pastures, and wetlands. It is part of their campaign to get title to their land, so they can protect it from road and dam projects.

Like their African counterparts, the Wapichan people held village meetings to discuss the technology and identify the features of the land they cared about. They then used GPS to position their farms, spiritual and cultural sites, and villages and to catalogue wildlife areas noted for jaguars, giant

The concept is spreading to urban slums, shanties, favelas and other unmapped settlements across the developing world.

river otters, and endemic fish and birds like the Rio Branco antbird. The GPS screens featured customized symbols for key features that could be clearly recognized by the indigenous operators.

“After ten years of work, we are very proud of the end result,” said Kid James of the South Central People’s Development Association, which provided the technology. “We are now keen to share our territorial map with government authorities to show how we occupy and use the land according to custom and how we are attached to our territory.”

Of course, outsiders, particularly environment groups, have been producing maps of remote forests and indigenous territories for a long time. But proponents of participatory mapping say this method gives communities “ownership” of the results. The difference, they say, is as great as the difference between an outside film crew moving in to make a film of a forest community, or supplying digital cameras so the locals can make their own film.

The concept is now spreading to urban slums, shanties, favelas and other unmapped settlements across the developing world, where mapping is being deployed as part of community advocacy against real estate developers.

The street networks and buildings of these slums are often not marked on official maps because no official mappers have ever gone there. They are as much terra incognita to the official world as the rainforests of Africa. By mapping the roads, houses, and commercial activities of their communities, the inhabitants of the slums hope to emphasize to city officials their economic and social importance.
An upcoming special issue of the journal Environment and Urbanizationwill tell their stories. One paper describes mapping in Epworth, a slum suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Residents “armed with tape measures and paint” located the boundaries of every plot, marking hedges, wells, and toilets, as well as roads, drainage ditches, and other infrastructure, before digitizing the information and superimposing it onto satellite images from Google Earth. Then, says Beth Chitekwe-Biti of the Dialogue on Shelter for the Homeless in Zimbabwe Trust, a Zimbabwean NGO, they took the digitized data to planning officers as part of a campaign to get their tenure in the squatter colony officially recognized in law.

Similar projects are documented in slums in Cuttack in the Indian state of Orissa, Nairobi in Kenya, and several cities in Uganda. The journal’s editors conclude that when officials no longer see slums as hostile, unknown territory — when they recognize them as places where real people have lived for decades, building communities, improving their streets, and running businesses — then they will begin to see the point of preserving and investing in them, rather than sweeping them away.

Similarly, the hope is that once rainforest inhabitants are seen as custodians of the forests rather than destroyers, then their rights too may be more easily secured.

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K. He is a contributing writer for Yale Environment 360 and is the author of numerous books, including “The Land Grabbers, Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World,” and “The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth About Global Warming.” MOREABOUT FRED PEARCE →

Further news from Yale360

Welcome to MappingForRights

What is Participatory Mapping?

Participatory mapping – also called community-based mapping – is a general term used to define a set of approaches and techniques that combines the tools of modern cartography with participatory methods to represent the spatial knowledge of local communities. It is based on the premise that local inhabitants possess expert knowledge of their local environments which can be expressed in a geographical framework which is easily understandable and universally recognised. Participatory maps often represent a socially or culturally distinct understanding of landscape and include information that is excluded from mainstream or official maps. Maps created by local communities represent the place in which they live, showing those elements that communities themselves perceive as important such as customary land boundaries, traditional natural resource management practices, sacred areas, and so on.


What criteria is there to recognise and denote community maps? 

Participatory mapping is defined by the process of production.The processes used to create the maps can be as valuable as the maps themselves. Participatory maps are planned around a common goal and a strategy for use and are often made with input from an entire community in an open and inclusive process. The higher the level of participation by all members of the community, the more beneficial the outcome because the final map will reflect the collective experience of the group producing the map.
Participatory mapping is a product that represents the agenda of the community. Participatory mapping is map production undertaken by communities to show information that is relevant and important to their needs and is mainly for their use.
Participatory mapping produces maps which depict local knowledge and information.The maps contain a community’s place names, symbols, scales and priority features that represent local knowledge systems.
Participatory mapping is not defined by the level of compliance with formal cartographic conventions. Participatory maps are not confined by formal media; a community map may be a drawing in the sand or may be incorporated into a sophisticated computer-based GIS (geographic information system). Whereas regular maps seek conformity, community maps embrace diversity in presentation and content. That said, to be useful for outside groups such as state authorities, the closer the maps follow recognised cartographic conventions, the greater the likelihood that they will be seen as effective communication tools.

(CTA and IIED, 2006)

Why is it useful? 

In recent years, there has been a growing effort to promote community engagement in decision-making processes concerning natural resource management. Participatory mapping has emerged as a powerful tool that allows remote and marginalised communities to represent themselves spatially, bringing their local knowledge and perspectives to the attention of governmental authorities and decision-makers. For this reason, participatory mapping is commonly used to create maps that represent land and resource use patterns, hazards, community values and perceptions, to gather information on traditional knowledge and practices, to collect data for assessments or monitoring, to present alternative scenarios and to empower and educate stakeholders. The methodology has been particularly effective in documenting the impacts of logging, mining, strictly protected areas other ‘land grabs’ on forest based communities.

The Rainforest Foundation UK’s Participatory Mapping Programme in the Congo Basin

The Rainforest Foundation UK’s (RFUK) participatory mapping programme aims to promote recognition of communities’ rights to access, control, and use forests in legislative, political and strategic processes of Congo Basin countries. More specifically, it seeks to ensure that forest communities, civil society groups and relevant government agencies have the capacity and resources to accurately map community land tenure and resource use, in order to inform decision making and planning related to forests and forest communities.

RFUK and its partners have pioneered participatory mapping in the Congo Basin since 2000, first supporting a pilot mapping exercise with Baka (often referred to as “Pygmy”) communities documenting their presence and forest use in order to inform the development of national forest policy in Cameroon. Since then, our regional mapping programme has extended to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, involving members of local civil society and government agencies. In each of the countries, specialist mapping laboratories have been equipped and staff trained in GIS (geographic information systems), along with an extensive network of community mapping facilitators. This has helped to support some 300 forest communities to produce maps of their lands and resources covering over 2,000,000 hectares to date. This work has played an important role in giving remote and disenfranchised forest-dependent communities a voice concerning natural resource management.

View this short video to find out more.



Second in size only to the Amazon, the Congo Basin rainforest covers more than 180 million hectares, spreading across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most of the Republic of Congo (RoC), the southeast of Cameroon, southern Central African Republic (CAR), Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This vast area is a vital regulator of regional climate, a carbon store of global significance and an important reserve of biodiversity hosting over 10,000 species of plant, 1,000 species of bird and 400 species of mammal including three of the world’s four species of great ape.

The region is thought to have been inhabited by humankind for more than 50,000 years, and is today home to 50 million rural people including an estimated 700,000 indigenous people. Although the forest is a vital resource, providing food, water, shelter and medicine as well as being central to cultural identity, such groups currently have few rights to the territories they traditionally occupy.

States, as the sole owners of the land, have opened up much of the forest to extractive industry and more recently to agri-businesses, often resulting in poor social and environmental outcomes. Conservation efforts have tended to further marginalise communities with protected areas consistently linked to land grabs, severe restrictions on livelihoods and human rights abuses.

There is growing consensus among policy makers that securing community land and resource rights of local communities is critical to good forest governance, although this is only starting to filter through to national laws in the Congo Basin and much less so implementation on the ground. Tools such as participatory mapping are therefore increasingly recognised as being key.

Satellites and Google Earth A Potent Conservation Tool Armed with vivid images from space and remote sensing data, scientists, environmentalists, and armchair conservationists are now tracking threats to the planet and making the information available to anyone with an Internet connection, Rhett Butler writes.READ MORE

Photo gallery
Mapping for Rights Gabon

The Rainforest Foundation/Mapping for Rights
Villagers navigate a river in northeast Gabon as part of mapping program supported by the Rainforest Foundation UK.

Photo gallery
Mapping for Rights Democratic Republic Congo

The Rainforest Foundation/Mapping for Rights
Villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo hold up a map created during a GPS mapping project.


The Congo Basin is home to the world’s second largest rainforest and is a carbon store of global significance. It is under severe pressure from industrial logging and clearance for agro-industry, but is home to an estimated 50 million forest-dependent people, including some 150 different ethnic groups – some of the poorest and most marginalized people on the planet.

MappingForRights is a ground-breaking project of the Rainforest Foundation UK and its local partners in the Congo Basin region that aims to help forest peoples counter harmful extractive industry and advocate for legal reforms. As well as providing communities with accurate printed maps of their lands, it is also an online platform allowing indigenous community leaders, decision-makers and NGOs in the region easy access to accurate geographical information about community lands and other users and allocations of the forests.

The system is based on enabling communities themselves to map and monitor their lands through low-cost, transferable technologies and making this data available to authorized users through an online interactive map.

In 2015, the project was further strengthened with the launch of ForestLink, a breakthrough forest monitoring system that allows remote communities to capture and transmit alerts on illegal logging and other forms of forest destruction in real-time – even in areas where there are no telecommunication networks.

Mapping for Rights


Key facts

  • A real-time alert on illegal logging from anywhere in the Congo Basin can be sent to a central database for as little as two cents, less than a text message.
  • By 2017 it is expected that more than 700 communities in the Congo Basin would have mapped their lands through the MappingForRights programme.
  • Up to six million hectares of forest community land will be mapped and uploaded to the platform by 2017.


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The problem

In general, the laws of Congo Basin countries give the State overall ownership of all forest land. Indigenous peoples and local communities have virtually no formal or legally recognized control of the lands they traditionally occupy, though they are sometimes permitted to use the land. Today, much of the forest in the region has been allocated for logging, industrial agriculture and mining concessions, or reserved for strict wildlife conservation.

As tropical forests come under increasing pressure from agricultural conversion, unsustainable timber extraction and energy needs, the rights of forest dwellers are often ill-defined or becoming gradually eroded. Underlying this marginalization is often a lack of reliable and transparent information on their use, ownership and possession of the forest. Often, communities are either completely absent from key official data, such as forest usage maps, or information is inaccurate or not publicly available.

The solution

There is significant evidence that securing community rights to land and resources is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty, preserve biodiversity, halt deforestation and reduce the harmful effects of climate change.

Geographical information generated by civil society organizations in the Congo Basin is collated in a repository web platform – – in order to facilitate access to a range of information showing customary occupation, as well as use of land and resources by forest communities. The visualization of this data can help to engage policy-makers, the private sector and the international community in a vital step towards changing policy and developing programmes that help secure local communities’ rights.

MappingForRights literally puts communities in the Congo Basin on the map by providing them with the technology and know-how to produce highly detailed digital maps of their traditional lands and resources that are used to claim land rights and challenge harmful projects. It then makes these community maps available and analyzable (including overlaying with other layers, such as deforestation maps, land use and designation etc.) through an online GIS interface.

The ForestLink system allows forest peoples the opportunity to send near-instantaneous, highly geographically accurate reports of illegal felling of trees, such as by timber or palm oil companies, from anywhere in the world, even where there is no mobile, phone or internet connectivity. Information on illegal activity in the forest can now be collected using a tablet computer or smartphone and then transmitted to an online map via a satellite modem transmitter in as little as 20 seconds – costing around the same as a standard text message. The live incident reports show where urgent action is required to prevent deforestation.

Helping the planet

The engagement of forest-dependent communities in direct ‘crowd-sourced’ real-time forest monitoring potentially transforms the way that forest illegalities are monitored and enforced. The location and type of reported infractions potentially becomes much more transparent and open to scrutiny – leading to more targeted and effective forest protection measures.


Mapping for Rights

Helping people

Communities have full control over the entire mapping process from deciding what to map, collection and validation of the data and ultimately putting the maps to use for protecting their rights and traditional forests. Specific attention is paid to ensure the full representation and involvement of marginalized groups, including indigenous peoples and women who often have a higher dependence on the forest and suffer disproportionately from its destruction.

An icon-based system, which communities themselves can design, allows even illiterate people to collect and share highly detailed information about their lands and threats to these areas. The apps can also be downloaded to most Android mobile phone devices, whose use in many tropical forest countries has grown exponentially in recent years.

The programme is bringing the cost of large-scale on-the-ground tenure mapping within the budgets of the organizations responsible for developing and administering forest-related programmes. For example, the introduction by Rainforest Foundation UK of mobile mapping laboratories staffed by GIS technicians and mapping facilitators has reduced the cost from around USD 4.50 per hectare to as little as USD 1 per hectare, or an average of just USD 900 per village.

The Rainforest Foundation is about to trial a ‘payment for performance’ system whereby communities could be rewarded for verified illegal logging alerts using emerging mobile banking services, as part of efforts to ensure sustainability beyond project-specific funding.

Spillover effect

Building on the MappingForRights experience in the Congo Basin, the Rainforest Foundation UK recently undertook a year-long study concerning the feasibility of establishing a pan-tropical community mapping and monitoring facility. A consultation of more than 70 indigenous peoples’ organizations and NGOs in Asia, South America and Mesoamerica produced an overwhelmingly strong and clear demand for such a tool.

On the basis of the findings, the Rainforest Foundation has designed a system that can be configured as a network of autonomous but linked online geographical databases that can be used for territorial protection, forest monitoring and interface with governmental authorities and the private sector, while permitting aggregation of mapping information at larger scales. A two-year pilot phase is envisaged in which four to six pilot community mapping platforms will be established in different geographical settings under threat from tropical deforestation and the appropriate governance structure developed.

Mapping For Human Rights Research and Activism

…mapping technology has matured into a tool for social justice. Whether it is to promote health, safety, fair politics or a cleaner environment, foundations, non-profit groups and individuals around the world are finding that maps can help them make their case far more intuitively and effectively than speeches, policy papers or press releases. “Mapping a better world.” The Economist, June 4th, 2009

Human rights researchers and activists increasingly use maps for research and activism. This trend follows the rapid proliferation of free and easy to use mapping tools, making basic mapping an easy to learn and much needed skill. In order to not get lost in the myriad of mapping options, we put together this simple online resource to help new mappers in the human rights community to get oriented. The various mapping options are organized in categories, making it easier to navigate. We plan to add new options or projects once they become available. Currently, there are the following categories:

This project is based on several years of experience mapping human rights related data, from attacks against civilians in Darfur (2007) to airstrikes in Al-Raqqa, Syria (2015). A special thanks goes to Ariel Low, who has researched and written all initial postings of this site in January 2015.

The Comparative Advantage of Mapping

Screenshot of interactive map on US drone strikes in Pakistan (Map created by Angela Chang for Amnesty International).

Screenshot of interactive map on US drone strikes in Pakistan (map created by Angela Chang for Amnesty International). Click image to explore

A key challenge for human rights activists is often to transform excellent research output—normally in the form of a lengthy pdf report—into an engaging campaign. The key to success is more often than not to reduce the complexity of the documentation and a specific legal framework, while at the same time increasing the level of engagement for activists. One approach to addressing this challenge is (interactive) mapping. A map is a highly useful tool for reducing complexity. First, it is visual and allows for summarizing vast amounts of data, often into a single, unifying dimension: a digital representation of our physical space. Secondly, it allows for greater ease in demonstrating otherwise complex trends, both spatial and temporal. Creating web-based mapping platforms add an additional interactivity function that allows users to better engage with the content and explore the issues at their own pace, thus sharply increasing the educational value. Human rights work lends itself naturally to mapping, as it is almost impossible to collect (research and activism) data that is not in some form connected to a physical location.

Additionally, the digital realm opens new potential for the creation and maintenance of a global community engaged on one human rights issue in one place, or a range of protection issues across a wide geographic region. Mapping adds value for the centralized collection of diffuse engagement material, as it adds a spatial dimension to ongoing activities and allows for a better sense of community among the engaged. Activists can see what others are doing in different parts of the world, and even coordinate.

Happy mapping!
Christoph Koettl, March 2015

This website is intended as a resource for human rights practitioners and should serve as guidance. References to any organizations or products do not constitute endorsement in any form. The views expressed on this website are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Amnesty International.