Can Hi-Tech Mapping Technology Protect Traditional Land?

Penan community, Sarawak. Toponyms are added to maps as they are recorded.

Photo by Bruno Manser Fonds

Article by Celine Lim, Yale F&ES '15, originally posted on the Environmental Performance Index blog

An indigenous leader walks around the land, stopping at sites used for hunting, collecting nuts, and worship. The points are recorded using a handheld GPS device and then transferred to a computer. These points are overlaid with other land uses in the territory, and a map is produced. The map shows where oil-drilling sites are located on the same place as the community’s ancient burial ground, and where pollution from the oil operations runs through their main water source. The community now has evidence to make a case against the company. This scene was a novelty just a few years ago, but today, it is a reality for many communities around the world.

Can technology and the way it lets us understand the world help indigenous and traditional communities safeguard their resource rights? Or is it yet another imposition of modern progress on a vulnerable population? Those were the questions that brought together experts from the TAI network working in Malaysia, Guyana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the TAI Fifth Global Gathering recently held in Bogotá. They were there to share just how they are testing the proposition that by using technology, those communities might be better able to map their land, its features, and monitor how they — or outside groups — use it. Such community or participatory mapping can indeed play a role in rights protection.

Community-based mapping and monitoring fulfill important purposes, especially when communities have control over data collection, management, and reporting. Many forest-dependent communities face incursions on their land from illegal logging, land grabs, and mining, but they often lack the tools needed to assert their rights to resources. With sufficient capacity and the right tools, communities can produce maps to document and prove their claims to resources. For example, if equipped with GPSes and the know-how to use one, they can record threats and the ensuing degradation through gathering live, place-specific evidence, and communicate these with their government, the mining companies, and a global audience.

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