Map Links Healthier Ecosystems, Indigenous Peoples

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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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