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.

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