Map or be mapped – mapping indigenous people’s territory

Map or be mapped – mapping indigenous people’s territory – includes related article

Michael Stone

We all were taught: the map is not the territory. But, recent attempts to secure land for indigenous peoples find the entanglement of maps and territories to be more complex. The map — or control of the map — sometimes makes the territory, especially when indigenous people have been invaded by map-makers. “More indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns,” University of California geographer Bernard Nietschmann concludes from his field experience. “And more indigenous territory can be reclaimed and defended by maps than by guns.”

Mapping of land-based commons — mapping of, by, and for the people — has been dubbed “counter- mapping,” “community-based mapping” or “participatory mapping.” The mapping toolkit comprises everything from maps scratched on the ground to high-tech GPS and GIS, and often assistance by outside NGOs or universities. Affordable equipment and access to a network of expertise provide communities map-making capacities comparable to those formerly enjoyed only by nation-states and wealthy corporations.

Official maps frequently misrepresent indigenous land, treat it as uninhabited, or reveal ambiguous borders. Clear boundary definition becomes the first line of defense against encroaching cattle ranchers, loggers, miners, road builders, and land speculators. But the mapping process also changes people’s perceptions of themselves and their territory, their resources, and their history. it can help political organizing and tilt the playing field of resource politics.

Current projects range from micro-mapping single communities to the Oxfam-sponsored effort to map all 1300 of Peru’s Native Amazonian communities. Most projects are multi-leveled — simultaneously ping on inhabitants’ terms, using their names, symbols, scales, and priorities (sometimes called “folkloric” maps), and converting these into cartographically orthodox maps that will be recognized by officials, accepted in court, and usable in negotiations. Neither folkloric nor orthodox maps are more “correct.” Each represents a cultural interpretation of territory; each can be used to increase the usefulness of the other; each changes how residents and non-residents view their geography.

A key, says Mac Chapin of the Center for the Support of Native Lands, is the level of local participation: the higher the level, the richer and more beneficial the outcome. Take a 1995-96 Native Lands project in Izoceno communities in Bolivia. Trained Izoceno surveyors armed with paper, colored pencils, and notebooks conducted village censuses and — working with village leaders — created hand-drawn maps showing land-use activities where people live, farm, hunt, practice ritual, gather medicinal plants and construction materials), as well as structures, resources, relationships, and physical landmarks.

Cartographers used these maps to produce new 1:50,000 maps based on available Military Geographical Institute maps. Then the surveyors took the draft maps back to the communities for feedback and correction, while draftsmen checked exact locations using GPS and compass readings. Finally, the team produced a 1:250,000 map of the region and 1:75,000 zone maps.

Some governments now accept many of these home-grown maps, acknowledging them as more accurate than their own. In Panama and Honduras, government cartographers have participated from the beginning in recent projects. The maps legitimize boundaries for protecting areas and document land use and occupancy for land-rights negotiations. They permit boundary monitoring with aerial or satellite photography, organizing land-based knowledge and resource inventories, and setting management and conservation priorities.

Just putting their names on the maps gives people a spiritual ownership of the things named, says Mac Chapin. Maps also give birth to a sense of region. The Honduran Mosquitia, for instance, includes 174 communities; before mapping, each dealt individually with cattlemen and loggers, unaware of others’ arrangements. Mapping created a feeling of territory, leading to the organization of seven regional Miskito federations for collective action. Since most place names have a historical genesis, the mapping process also became the occasion for communities gathering across generations, sharing stories and songs, and recollecting their identity.

Indigenous mapping is not without problems or controversy (see below). But, as the creators of the Maya Atlas argue, either you will map or you will be mapped.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group