Tribes Effectively Barred From Making High-Tech Maps

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."

Continued on Next Page >>




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