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.
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.”
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.
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