for National Geographic News
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
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Isolated tribes in the Amazon are now using satellites, computers, and even Google Earth to guard against threats from logging, agriculture, drug wars, and oil operations.
Many Indian groups have struggled to protect their lands—which often contain oil reserves or high-value timber—because they have no official records of the borders of tribal territories.
So activists have been training these South American communities to use digital mapping technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) to build maps that definitively outline their properties.
Jen Osha is co-founder of the nonprofit group Aurora Lights and a doctoral student in geography at West Virginia University.
Osha said that participatory GIS—the blending of local geographic knowledge with modern mapping data—can help indigenous communities stop the loss of ancestral lands and decrease their reliance on foreigners.
"The process of making maps can increase community organization and empower community members in daily relationships with [government] officials, because they now have hard data they can use," Osha said.
In eastern Ecuador the Huaorani (wow-rah-nee) people are under increasing pressure to surrender their land to logging and international oil companies.
One Huaorani family had been leading its tribe deeper into the forest to retreat from encroaching developers, Osha said. But digital mapping showed the group the need to shift their strategy.
"When they developed a map, they understood that they were surrounded on three sides and had nowhere to go," she said. "They had to choose a new tool. Now they have decided to use participatory mapping to defend themselves."
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