Map Links Healthier Ecosystems, Indigenous Peoples

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 27, 2003
Central America and southern Mexico's forests and marine resources have
been dwindling for decades. Now there's evidence that the scope of
destruction depends on who uses the land and water. A new map shows that
natural ecosystems have a better chance of survival when indigenous
people inhabit them.

Mapmakers working with the Center for the Support of Native Lands, in Arlington, Virginia, and the National Geographic Society, in Washington, D.C., gathered data for 15 months for the landmark project. They superimposed a map of indigenous territories on another one showing forest cover and marine ecosystems. The new map reveals a strong correlation between indigenous presence and the survival of natural ecosystems.

Environmentalists have long pointed to a link between cultural and biological diversity. The late geographer Bernard Nietschmann called it "the rule of indigenous environments—where there are indigenous peoples with a homeland there are still biologically rich environments."

The new map is part of an effort to bring the tools of cartography to indigenous cultures. Activists hope it could empower Central America and southern Mexico's native peoples to preserve their cultures and ancestral lands.

Remaking the Map

The map is the brainchild of anthropologist Mac Chapin. In 1991, while studying a map of Central American Indians, he kept glancing at a map of Central America hanging on the wall. "According to that map, the bulk of Central America's natural forest was to be found hugging the Caribbean side of the isthmus," he said. "Precisely where the lowland indigenous peoples lived."

Emboldened by his discovery, Chapin created a map in 1992 that showed the correspondence of indigenous settlement and forest cover. It was a big hit. The president of Guatemala even put up the map in his private residence.

In 2000, Chapin and a team of anthropologists, ecologists, and geographers began work on revising the map. Satellite imaging and digital data replaced much of the laborious cartographic handwork of the earlier map. The new map added southern Mexico to the region covered and shows marine ecosystems, which were not included on the 1992 map.

Local coordinators fanned out to remote villages and interviewed community leaders, asking questions such as: "How far out to sea do you go to fish?"

History and Ecology

The reasons for the correlation between indigenous land use and the survival of natural areas are several. Native groups retreated to densely forested areas centuries ago to avoid extermination by conquistadors. Most of them settled in the northern highlands and the forests of the Caribbean coastal slope. Today, indigenous peoples still have a strong presence there.

An ecological factor also played a role: The Indians' subsistence economy has proved less destructive to natural resources than the developed economy of non-indigenous peoples.

Some experts believe the map indicates that indigenous peoples have shown a better stewardship of natural resources. "It's part of their belief system," said Kenn Rapp of the Center for the Support of Native Lands. "They don't see a division between nature and man. When they cultivate, they don't farm [on the same plots] every year, but instead give the land time to recover between harvests."

Tool of Democracy

Some see cartography as a tool of democracy that calls attention to peoples and cultures that are undervalued or ignored. "Mapping efforts have turned the documentation of native land claims into one of the most potent global tools of forest conservation," said David Bray, an anthropology professor at Florida International University, in Miami.

Mapping abstract notions helps make them tangible. "People think about borders, roads, towns or rivers when they think about maps," said Allen Carroll, chief cartographer at National Geographic Society. "But maps can show all sorts of revealing aspects of the world, from species distribution to ecology to language, crime, geology or climate. They're tremendously powerful presenters and integrators of information."

The Central America map helped spark a widespread campaign for protecting and legalizing the territories of indigenous peoples. Traditionally, most of the native communities regarded their territories as commons and had never seen a need for documents such as deeds and plats (a type of land, or lot map). But the lack of such proof of ownership meant they were often unable to defend their territories from being occupied or exploited.

Land to the People

Some experts point to a trend toward devolving forest ownership or administrative responsibility to indigenous communities. Forest Trends, a non-profit environmental group based in Washington, D.C., recently calculated that of the 3.9 billion hectares in the global forest estate, some 11 percent is owned by or reserved for communities. But 57 percent of this total has been transferred just in the last 15 years, showing an accelerating global trend.

The Center for the Support of Native Lands advocates increased co-management of natural ecosystems. "We hope to influence national governments and the transnational organizations to better consider the culture of indigenous peoples as a factor in the programs they design," said Rapp.

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