Tribes Effectively Barred From Making High-Tech Maps

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2007
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

Tribes in Southeast Asia are being kept from using the latest high-tech gadgets to help them win land rights.

That's the outcry from activist groups that have been helping indigenous communities mix computers and handheld navigation devices with paints, yarn, and cardboard to make simple but accurate three-dimensional terrain models.

Several tribes have already used such models, based on data from geographic information systems (GIS), to defend their territories from developers making claims via modern legal systems.

But in Malaysia and the Philippines, the practice—dubbed participatory GIS—has sparked a legal backlash, activists say.

For example, Philippine lawmakers have changed an existing law so that only officially recognized engineers "could do anything related to measuring space," said Dave De Vera, director of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development.

"In short [participatory GIS] is illegal, including all of the attendant activities critical in its conduct," he said.

The Philippine law, he added, carries fines and the chance of up to three years in prison.

Moving Mountains

Rambaldi Giacomo, director of the nonprofit Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development, is among the experts using terrain models to help indigenous groups.

"The question is how to help [these] people communicate with engineers, government officials, and development agencies," Giacomo said.

"There are new technical wonders such as Google Earth, GIS, and GPS [global positioning systems], but you can't take them to people who are often illiterate."

The modeling technique often starts by showing village elders satellite images, which they use to record their mental maps of tribal territories, hunting grounds, and sacred sites.

Outside experts can then use GPS and GIS to put accurate geographic coordinates on the models and maps, making them usable in modern legal procedures.

(Related news: "Amazon Tribes Use Latest Gadgets to Battle Developers" [January 23, 2007].)

"It is a way for [indigenous] people to visualize and communicate their sense of space," Giacomo said.

The Higaunon people in the Philippines, for example, recently used cardboard and paints to build a 3-D model of a nearby mountain, Mount Kimangkil, that helped them win an ancestral land title in February.

"The 3-D model enabled the community to define the extents of their territory and gather political support from Philippine lawmakers," De Vera, of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development, said.

And groups in the northern Philippines recently made a 5.5-by-10-foot (1.6-by-3-meter) scale model of a nearby mountain and presented it to the Philippine congress.

"They successfully used it as their main illustration in their advocacy to have the mountain declared off limits to development," De Vera said.

In a pending case, the Teduray people of the southern Philippines are fighting a proposal that would declare their region an officially Muslim area.

The indigenous Teduray are concerned that such a designation would spark ethnic conflict between non-Muslim residents and Islamic officials who would preside over the region.

Teduray tribe members therefore asked their village elders to take turns analyzing an enlarged Google Earth image of their territory, marking boundaries and ultimately creating maps and a terrain model.

Now they are using the tools to enlist help from the United Nations and the Philippine government, De Vera said.

Seal of Approval

In nearby Malaysia, the indigenous community Rumah Nor used high-tech mapping techniques to win a landmark court case in 2001 against a major paper company that was encroaching on its territory.

Mark Bujang, of the Iban people from Malaysia's Sarawak state on the island of Borneo, said that the court ruling increased indigenous demand for community-based mapping (see a Malaysia map).

But just after the Rumah Nor decision, the government of Sarawak passed a measure stating that no land survey would be accepted without government approval.

And similar to the Philippines ruling, the Sarawak measure restricts the gathering of mapping data by nonprofessionals using tools like GIS.

"Now if you do not have a license from the government and you are not registered with the Land Surveyors Board, the [law] could be used to charge you for making illegal maps," Bujang said via email.

Neither the Sarawak government nor officials in the Philippines responded to interview requests.

While the laws in these countries do not outright forbid indigenous groups from making maps, activists say, the measures severely undermine local mapmaking by requiring the use of specialists certified by the government.

"Imagine that indigenous communities who are trying to show the location and size of their native customary land in court are not able to do so unless they get someone who is licensed and registered," Bujang said.

"This is not possible, because most of the licensed and registered surveyors are working with the government or private consultant firms, [and] the latter costs too much for the communities."

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