Zoom in on Peru with Google Maps in satellite view and you’ll see a country comprised of three distinct zones. Sediment-rich rivers, including the Amazon, serpentine through the rainforest, ridges on the Andean mountains — Peru’s highland spine — look like veins, and parched deserts edge the Pacific Ocean. These diverse ecosystems are home to equally diverse indigenous peoples: around 55 groups, speaking 47 languages, according to the Denmark-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
Yet these communities’ existence and their land rights have long been contentious issues for Peru, says Richard Chase Smith, executive director of the conservation charity Instituto del Bien Común in Lima. “The state prefers not to see them and for them not to be seen. That’s because of a major political change, starting after the military government in 1980, to view the communities as a threat and to view community lands as a waste of resources.”
Cartography allowed colonial governments to carve up indigenous lands, and mapping remains a tool of both recognition and suppression.
Indigenous peoples across the globe — from Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals to the tribes of Indonesia and Tanzania — face similar challenges. They may have long occupied the land, but that doesn’t mean they always own it — at least in the eyes of states. According to a report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, “Communities are estimated to hold as much as 65% of the world’s land area through customary, community-based tenure systems. However, national governments only recognize formal, legal rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to a fraction of these lands.”
Cartography allowed colonial governments to carve up indigenous lands, and mapping remains a tool of both recognition and suppression. Google Maps is a present-day manifestation of a centuries-old political impulse to visualize territory.