This Alternative to Google Maps Aims to Protect Indigenous Land

Even high tech often ignores indigenous lands, but an ambitious mapping project called LandMark is helping communities stake their claims

Credit: LandMark

ZZoom 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.

Smith understands the political authority associated with maps. Working with local groups, he and his team have spent the last 20 years mapping 2,500 native communities in Peru’s Amazonian regions. In 2005, they also began the mammoth task of mapping the country’s 8,000 so-called comunidades indígenas, or peasant communities. “We decided we had to get communities mapped, to show their existence and to allow community peoples to use those maps to say, ‘We are here. This is us,’” he explains.

International concern about threats to indigenous lands is growing. At a land rights conference in Switzerland, in September 2013, Smith and colleagues coled a call for the development of a global map-based platform of indigenous and community lands, backed by the sustainability nongovernmental organization, World Resources Institute (WRI) of Washington, D.C., alongside the Indonesian human rights group Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara. By 2015, a steering group of 12 members, including the Union of Indigenous Nomadic Tribes of Iran (UNINOMAD) and the World Atlas of Indigenous Peoples’ Territories (WAIPT), was collaborating on the project.

Their solution, LandMark, was launched in November of the same year. LandMark aims to make lands and the peoples who live on them visible and to help indigenous communities protect and secure their land rights. The centerpiece of the project is an interactive world map, one different than anything you might find on Google.

Users­ — mostly communities, governments, companies, development agencies, and researchers — can zoom in on specific regions. Areas that have been mapped are color coded to distinguish between indigenous and community land. Indigenous land is collectively held and governed by indigenous peoples with distinct social, cultural, or economic characteristics; community land is collectively held by a community (a grouping of individuals and families that share common interests in a definable local land area) regardless of recognition under national statutory law.

Color also shows whether the land is formally recognized and indicates its legal status, including whether it is held under customary tenure or if a formal land claim has been submitted. Every area illustrates assets — contributions that indigenous peoples and communities make to managing land and, in turn, protecting the environment — as well as specific threats, such as infrastructure development, mining, and timber extraction.

LandMark offers a current picture of the world, rather than the historical one frozen in most maps.

The data behind the map is aggregated from a network of recognized experts and organizations, some gathered at the community level, and some from government records. Traceability and verification processes are strict. Sources are attributed on the platform and data is reviewed by LandMark and external experts.

LandMark offers a current picture of the world, rather than the historical one frozen in most maps. Some peoples use the data to reclaim land that was once recognized as being theirs; others want their land, and their role as the best managers of that land, legally recognized for the first time, and hope that inclusion on LandMark will help.

In the Philippines, LandMark’s partner organization is the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID), which is using LandMark to collect environmental statistics like forest coverage and soil carbon data. Positive reports help communities argue that they can manage their land better than the state and, in turn, that their claims should be legally recognized.

The platform is also making an impact at an international level, says Peter Veit, the director of land rights resources at WRI and a LandMark co-founder. “A lot of companies and investors are beginning to shift from dealing with land conflicts on a case-by-case basis to a more institutional approach.” They are interested in understanding whether the land that they are targeting for investment — or land that governments are offering them — is clear of counter claims and potential conflicts.

Many companies now have internal risk assessment platforms that incorporate LandMark data. This has big implications, according to Veit. Not only does it mean that companies may avoid targeting indigenous and community land, but they can now access data about who holds the territory. “Then they know who to negotiate with over access to it,” he explains. “That’s a huge opportunity for communities to deal with the threats that they face.”

LandMark also allows communities to connect and compare data. In Australia, advocates of Aboriginal rights have used legal data available on the platform to show that federal laws aimed at protecting indigenous land rights in Australia are nowhere near as strong as they are in some other countries.

Back in Peru, communities are now using maps in their campaigns, says Smith. “Whether it is mining, whether it be oil spillage on their lands, whether it be illegal invasion of their lands, they’re using those maps.”

The scale of the project is vast. LandMark has so far mapped around 12.4% of the world’s collectively held land. South, Central, and North America, along with Australia and parts of South Africa, are widely mapped but large areas of Africa, Asia, and Europe still need data. LandMark is being restructured so that the team can access a wider network of partners and funding, and new data from Nepal and Mozambique has just been added.

This global collaboration faces complex challenges and uses 21st century technology, but its aim is age-old. Like any map, LandMark is potent visual tool. It lets indigenous peoples and communities show the rest of the world a simple fact: we are here, on this land.

Location-independent journalist and essayist. Stories in Wired, National Geographic (digital), The Atlantic, SmithsonianMag, Aeon, GOOD, Huck, and more.

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