‘The aim is to produce maps that governments cannot ignore’


Villagers in DRC being trained to use GPS systems. Photograph by The Rainforest Foundation

From Environment 360:

Deep in the African rainforest and three days from home, a tribal hunter, punting down a backwater, puts aside his spear and takes out a GPS handset. He doesn’t need the Global Positioning System to know where he is. He is intimate with every inch of his tribe’s forests. But he taps an icon on the screen to identify the burial ground, sacred grove, or wildlife-rich swamp he is passing, then puts the handset back in his hunting bag, and carries on. The data on the handset will later be uploaded onto remote sensing maps created by Google Earth. Now his knowledge can be shared with the world.

These days, across the rainforests of central Africa and in South America, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the new weapon of choice for defending community lands against outsiders is digital mapping technology. The aim is to produce maps that governments cannot ignore and that will help inhabitants to claim legal ownership of their lands and to fight back against ministers and officials intent on handing over their forests to loggers, mining companies, and other outside exploiters.

In a largely unheralded technological revolution, thousands of forest dwellers have been trained in how to combine their old ways of marking and remembering territory, in which a boundary might be “the big tree by the river two days’ walk away,” with digitized mapping techniques. “It is becoming a powerful tool of advocacy,” says Georges Thierry Handja, the Cameroonian technical advisor for the Rainforest Foundation UK, a Western NGO active in the field.

Consider events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. There, in the aftermath of a long civil war, the government is currently zoning its forests — which cover as much as 316 million acres, an area nearly the size of France, Germany and Spain combined — in preparation for their mass allocation to logging companies. Old European timber conglomerates want to reactivate their concessions, some dating back almost to the brutal days more than a century ago when the entire country was run by King Leopold of Belgium. Logging newcomers from Malaysia and China also want a slice of the action.

Faced with the threat of losing their lands, both Bantu farmers and indigenous hunters in the western province of Bandundu, a center of rubber harvesting in Leopold’s time, have been mapping their forests.

“Digital Defenders: Tribal People Use GPS to Protect Their Lands”, Fred Pearce, Environment 360