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A move to blend culture with maps to save vanishing forests

In Indonesia and around the world there's a movement afoot to blend map-making with cultural knowledge to help people without formal land title hang on to what's left of their homes.

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A volunteer sits on a rock in the forest near Haratai, Indonesia, and enters coordinates into a GPS device, part of a project to map the area more fully.

Sara Schonhardt

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With machetes slung over their shoulders and cooking pots tied to their packs, a team of seven surveyors set off from this sleepy hill town recently to complete a mapping project they hope will bring their village into existence for Indonesian officialdom.

For four days, the team traversed the forest, guided only by local knowledge. When they arrived at a landmark – a river, a cave, a sacred grove – they would enter its coordinates into a GPS device.

Why? Because activists hope that good maps will be their best weapon in fighting a land grab by wealthy and powerful interests that has been under way for centuries.

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There's a new type of indigenous activism taking root in the thin soils of Borneo – and around the world from the Philippines to Pacific islands such as Fiji to South America. At its root is the hope that sophisticated interactive maps – incorporating the precision of GPS satellite tools with cultural and land-use information that can only be obtained from residents on the ground – will convince governments to better defend traditional cultures and the natural resources they rely upon.

First, some history: While people have lived in and around Haratai in the southern corner of Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) for centuries, central government authorities and their precursors have rarely looked after local needs. From the beginning the process of economic development and change has largely been one of exploitation of forest dwellers by coastal and foreign powers.

In the 17th century came the spice trade, with fortunes made along the coast in the sultanate of Banjarmasin from the pepper that Europeans craved. Ultimately that attracted British and Dutch colonial interests. No one respected or cared for the diverse tribes of the interior, referred to with the catch-all name "Dayaks."

In 1811, when English adventurer Alexander Hare arrived in Banjarmasin as Britain's representative for the area, he persuaded the sultan to make him a gift of land equivalent to the size of Delaware, chased off the ancestral inhabitants (who were considered untamable), and imported slaves from Java and elsewhere. They died in the hundreds from disease and malnutrition while doing his bidding.

The modern state of Indonesia that emerged in this archipelago after World War II has also had little respect for traditional forest communities. The country's vast rain forests, the bulk of them on Sumatra and Borneo, have been treated for most of Indonesia's history as national assets to be distributed by the government in Jakarta to whomever they see fit. Since 1950, areas of natural forest larger than the state of Texas have been cleared and frequently replaced with vast palm oil or tree plantations. This transformation has been devastating for people who relied on the forests for both sustenance and spirituality, and has led to frequent wildfires that at their worst blanket the region in smog for weeks at a time, stretching from southern Malaysia to Java.

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Over the past decade, a decentralization of power in Indonesia has taken place that has put local coastal elites back in charge of the distribution of land. But just like the sultan of Banjarmasin before them, they've been little concerned with what the people living on it want done.

Mapping change

So the mapping project – part of an effort by civil society groups in Indonesia to chart land occupied by traditional communities – is designed as a tool to try to convince local and national governments to deal with traditional communities in a different way. The mappers want to help local people lay down their claims to land and prove how important it is to their well-being.

The activists feel they're in a race against time – before the last vestiges of a rain forest that has the greatest diversity of plant and animal life on the planet (there are more native plant species on Borneo than in all of Africa) disappears for good, and the cultures that rely on the forest along with it.

"More and more mining and palm oil companies are grabbing land from these customary societies," says Ruddy Redhani, a coordinator for a nonprofit coalition, SLPP, that works on participatory mapping in South Kalimantan.

Without evidence in the form of a map or land certificate that shows land use, it's easy for logging, mining, or palm oil companies to get licenses from local governments, Mr. Redhani says. They simply claim the land is unoccupied and move in. Overnight, long-term inhabitants of a patch of forest can be redefined as squatters and trespassers.

A map that has been signed and approved by the community and its leaders provides "an official testimony of how indigenous people manage the land," Redhani contends.

Indigenous communities in some places have been mapping their territories for decades. But mapping as a form of activism – sometimes dubbed "maptivism" – has taken off more recently as the technology needed to do it has become cheaper and more accessible.

Forest-dwelling communities are now using maps to fight for their rights to land against logging and mining companies that are encroaching on the forests and depriving them of livelihoods.

"Maps are just a step in a process which enables the custodians of the land to claim rights over land and water, or develop management plans, or an irrigation scheme," says Giacomo Rambaldi, senior program coordinator at the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation in the Netherlands.

They also play an important role in conservation, helping pinpoint where deforestation is happening or wildlife is at risk of extinction.

CyberTracker Conservation, a nonprofit mapping software developer, uses icons to allow nonliterate trackers to capture data about animal movements. Its software has been used to monitor butterflies in Switzerland, Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia, and wild horses in Mongolia.

Communities are also documenting things like oil spills "to enrich the traditional campaign narrative between an activist group and a company or a government," says Gregor MacLennan, a program director at the nonprofit advocacy group Digital Democracy.

That organization is currently building a mobile reporting platform alongside remote indigenous groups in Mexico and the Amazon Basin that will allow them to document environmental degradation and threats to their communities and share it with others through the Internet.

It also just launched an online map that includes pop-out video interviews with the Achuar tribe in Peru as they walk through places that would be destroyed by a potential oil project and tell stories about the rivers they drink from or how a certain area got its name.

"That story is what brings the map alive, because it's no longer just a symbol on a map. You can start to see the relationship between the facts and the stories," says Mr. MacLennan.

He calls the approach "evidence-based advocacy" and argues that it enables people who are only hearing one side of an argument – often the company's, in the case of land battles – to get the community's perspective.

Seeking understanding

A failure to see the perspective of local communities has frequently led to tragedy here in Kalimantan. For instance, a decade ago, ethnic clashes broke out in Central Kalimantan Province between Dayaks and settlers from other parts of Indonesia. The fighting was focused around economic grievances and land-use conflicts. In the late 1960s, Indonesia's president at the time, Suharto, decided that the answer to high population density on Java and in other areas was to sponsor resettlement programs on Borneo and Sumatra, brushing aside the fact that their poorer soils were a reason population was lower in the first place. Within 30 years, the outsiders made up 20 percent of the province's inhabitants, and having arrived with better government connections and integration into the national economy, they frequently displaced locals from both jobs and land.

Big cultural divides exacerbated economic tensions, and when they boiled over in 2001, some 500 people were killed and more than 100,000 settlers and their descendents, most from the island of Mudura, were displaced.

What led to that tragedy was the Indonesian government's tendency to see the forest as terra nullius, rather than an integral part of a local way of life.

The mapping activists hope to change that.

At its most basic, participatory mapping pools the knowledge of individuals in a community, and that, Mr. Rambaldi says, is very powerful. "If ordinary people are in the position to present these kinds of outputs to government officials, to officials from development agencies, it puts them on an equal footing," he says. "You cannot dismiss these people easily."

And because so many members of the community participate, the information that is generated extends across generations.

In villages in Indonesia where the maps have been completed, elders have used them to educate the younger generation about the village boundaries and land use, the two most important components of the map, Redhani says.

Some communities have started mapping to document vanishing cultures and help preserve them for the future. Maps often show ancestral burial grounds, important landmarks, or areas that are sacred and must remain off limits to development.

In Fiji, communities are using 3-D maps to unlock knowledge held by elders. In just two weeks, representatives from 26 villages managed to identify 83 places of cultural significance. Rambaldi has been amazed by the information that emerges, he says.

"The fishing grounds where the fishermen use a certain type of hook or where they harvest sea cucumber, the cultural sites and trails," he says. "There is no map in the world that has this information because it was in the minds of the people."

The map in Fiji includes information about regional variations in rainfall, vegetation, types of game animals – even the taste of honey.

Competing visions

Those working with the community mapping project in Indonesia say they want to shift the way the government sees forest conservation and the rights of traditional users by giving them powerful evidence of how communities view their land use.

For instance, the government doesn't understand which areas are considered sacred, Redhani says. "They only understand the vegetation, not which areas are cultural or holy."

Indonesia's Constitutional Court recently invalidated government ownership of customary forests, so mapping could give indigenous communities ammunition in the fight for real control. And more understanding of land use could anticipate and head off future land conflicts.

The Philippines, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Kenya have recently begun pilot projects for community-based monitoring and information systems that are working to create real-time maps of forest activity.

"If we have that kind of system, we can easily influence the government," asserts Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the former chair of the United Nations forum on indigenous issues and the founder and director of Tebtebba, a Philippines-based indigenous-rights group.

Already courts in Malaysia have accepted the new maps as evidence in cases in which indigenous communities are fighting for their right to communal land. Two landmark court decisions have established that indigenous communities have customary rights over communal land and communal forest reserves, setting off a spate of similar legal cases. At least 200 cases are currently pending, but activists say the past decisions have given confidence to native landowners.

Mapping's risk: disclosing resources

"We see community mapping as a tool we can use to empower a community so they have the bargaining power, as well as evidence, if they need to bring it to court to prove their land-rights claims," says Mark Bujang, founder of the Borneo Resources Institute in Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo.

In many other places, however, the government doesn't recognize customary land, Rambaldi says. There are some dangers to mapmaking as well as opportunities, he says.

"The mapping needs to be tailored for the purpose of the mapping, the environment [legal and natural] and the skills of those using the technology," he says.

One of the biggest risks of mapping, especially when maps are released on the Internet, is that they can disclose sensitive information that communities want to keep secret, he says, such as the location of ancestral burial grounds or forest resources like swiftlet nests, which are highly valued in Chinese medicine and would be vulnerable to plundering.

But while that's a risk, it doesn't come close to the danger of losing everything. So, with maps in hand, activists and local people will continue to try to change what has been an unfortunate tradition of displacement.

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