Penan community, Sarawak. Toponyms are added to maps as they are recorded (Photo by Bruno Manser Fonds)

Can hi-tech mapping technology protect traditional land?

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.

Men from the Gbagbali village geo-tagging a fruit tree using Sapelli (Photo by ExCiteS)

Men from the Gbagbali village geo-tagging a fruit tree using Sapelli (Photo by ExCiteS)

There are many tools that are currently being tested. A couple highlighted at the TAI Global Gathering were:

  • Sapelli, an icon- and voice-based app accessible to illiterate communities for monitoring poaching and illegal logging activities, piloted by communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • The Sarawak Geoportal, an easy-to-use data display platform that allows communities to control data management. Often, after collecting data, communities have been less involved in managing it, a task usually undertaken by supporting non-governmental organizations as it requires technical computational skills. This is a gap that has to change— too often, information has been exported to external groups, never to be seen again by the communities themselves. Such tools could allow communities to have the say over who collects data when, and how it is used.

The TAI experts also raised important challenges posed by participatory mapping tools and methods and the implications for user communities. It should be clear to all by now that technology is not a silver bullet. A variety of conditions must first be met before technology should be introduced in a community, and risks made transparent. Will the introduction of modern tools undermine tradition? Will they serve to reinforce and strengthen existing social structures? Will the enthusiasm of community youth over technology diverge from the position of traditional decision-makers, causing conflict?

And just as troublingly, will information in the wrong hands expose communities to further resource grabs? Before signing on, communities should be given full information and the choice to freely participate and determine the conditions of their participation.

Participants at TAI GG sharing experiences with community monitoring tools (Photo by Celine Lim)

Participants at TAI GG sharing experiences with community monitoring tools (Photo by Celine Lim)

While maps are powerful tools, what they represent for a community is nuanced. What a map displays is equally telling as what it masks, such as the power dynamics within a community. A map seemingly legitimized by the community may hide conflicting internal understandings of land use. While maps have been used successfully to reclaim a community’s rights, the burden of proof lies with the communities, who often have little resources and capacity to defend themselves against powerful opponents. The level of sophistication engendered by community mapping projects may also raise the bar for others who wish to make similar claims. Community maps have to stand up against those of logging or oil companies where overlapping claims to land exist. Whose maps are legitimate, and in whose eyes?

The argument can be made that the tools of today’s technology should be included among the tools traditional communities use to protect their resources. Even if we get past the question of whether indigenous communities should be exposed to modern technology (who are we to decide the future for them?), there are still numerous other dilemmas to grapple with. Accounting for the unintended negative outcomes is critical, and must be done thoughtfully.

Blog originally posted on The Metric of the Environmental Performance Index.