15 Mar 2012: Report

Digital Defenders: Tribal People
Use GPS to Protect Their Lands

From the rainforests of central Africa to the Australian outback, indigenous people armed with GPS devices are surveying their territories and producing maps they can use to protect them from logging and other outside development.

by fred pearce

Deep in the African rainforest and three days from home, a tribal hunter, punting down a backwater, puts aside his spear and takes out a GPS handset. He doesn’t need the Global Positioning System to know where he is. He is intimate with every inch of his tribe’s forests. But he taps an icon on the screen to identify the burial ground, sacred grove, or wildlife-rich swamp he is passing, then puts the handset back in his hunting bag, and carries on. The data on the handset will later be uploaded onto remote sensing maps created by Google Earth. Now his knowledge can be shared with the world.

These days, across the rainforests of central Africa and in South America, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the new weapon of choice for defending community lands against outsiders is digital mapping technology. The aim is to produce maps that governments cannot ignore and that will help inhabitants to claim legal ownership of their lands and to fight back against ministers and officials intent on handing over their forests to loggers, mining companies, and other outside exploiters.

In a largely unheralded technological revolution, thousands of forest dwellers have been trained in how to combine their old ways of marking and remembering territory, in which a boundary might be “the big tree by the river two days’ walk away,” with digitized mapping techniques. “It is becoming a powerful tool of advocacy,” says Georges Thierry Handja, the Cameroonian technical advisor for the Rainforest Foundation UK, a Western NGO active in the field.

Photo gallery
Mapping for Rights Gabon

The Rainforest Foundation/Mapping for Rights
Villagers navigate a river in northeast Gabon as part of mapping program supported by the Rainforest Foundation UK.
Consider events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. There, in the aftermath of a long civil war, the government is currently zoning its forests — which cover as much as 316 million acres, an area nearly the size of France, Germany and Spain combined — in preparation for their mass allocation to logging companies. Old European timber conglomerates want to reactivate their concessions, some dating back almost to the brutal days more than a century ago when the entire country was run by King Leopold of Belgium. Logging newcomers from Malaysia and China also want a slice of the action.

Faced with the threat of losing their lands, both Bantu farmers and indigenous hunters in the western province of Bandundu, a center of rubber harvesting in Leopold’s time, have been mapping their forests. Each community has produced an initial sketch map of their area. Then more than 400 volunteers from 200 remote villages, all trained by Handja and his colleagues to use GPS handsets, have traveled for days by boat or on foot to record the precise locations of important points on their sketch maps — not least the boundaries of their territories.

“When communities are involved in mapping their lands,” Handja says, “they can play an important part in the conservation, management and development of forests.” The Bandundu mapping project, supported by the British government through the Rainforest Foundation, was last year’s runner up in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards for “socially responsible design in solving the world’s complex problems.”

The Congo project is part of a wider movement now occurring from the rainforests of Guyana, to the Australian outback, to the boreal forests of Canada’s native communities — and even in the urban slums of India. The idea, which some trace back to community action in the South Bronx in the
The idea is to enable local people to document their areas and advocate for them — whether fighting off loggers or real estate developers.
1990s, is to enable local people to document their own areas and advocate for them — whether fighting off loggers or real estate developers.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), forest mapping is intensely political. The community mappers hope they can successfully challenge a rival zoning process being funded by the U.S. government and run by the U.S. Forest Service for the DRC government. This zoning project is a preparation for handing out new logging rights in untouched forests.

The official mapping does not require anyone to go into the field — or even to set foot in the Congo. It uses remote sensing imagery without any “community truthing.” It ignores the customary land rights of the forest communities.

In theory, the government’s macro-zoning and the community micro-mapping could be complementary. But in practice they are in direct competition, said one insider close to the zoning process, who did not want to be named. The projects embody entirely different ideas about who should control the forests. This person told me: “The zoning commission does not make any reference to communities and their participatory mapping. The idea is that once the forest has been zoned and allocated to loggers, then the new concession holders will have the job of organizing how and whether forest communities can live within the zones.”

Photo gallery
Mapping for Rights Democratic Republic Congo

The Rainforest Foundation/Mapping for Rights
Villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo hold up a map created during a GPS mapping project.
If the zoning proceeds on this basis, it would be a travesty of fairness. But it may not. An agreement has been reached on a new DRC law that would establish community rights to forests and define how communities can use their own mapping to get formal title. Activists say the new law has been sitting on the desk of the prime minister for many months, but that he has not yet submitted it to the parliament to become law. Meanwhile the zoning process that would, in effect, negate those community rights is going ahead.

Cath Long of the London-based NGO Well Grounded, which helps forest communities, recently visited Bandundu. “All of the forest belongs to different clans, with clearly delineated boundaries between clan lands,” she says. With community maps digitized, “it should be relatively straightforward for communities to enter into the process of claiming a formal title.” The question is: will it happen?

Similar questions dog enthusiastic mappers elsewhere in the world. In February, 20 farming and fishing communities of the indigenous Wapichan people in the South American nation of Guyana announced the completion of their own digital mapping of three million acres of traditional forests, pastures, and wetlands. It is part of their campaign to get title to their land, so they can protect it from road and dam projects.

Like their African counterparts, the Wapichan people held village meetings to discuss the technology and identify the features of the land they cared about. They then used GPS to position their farms, spiritual and cultural sites, and villages and to catalogue wildlife areas noted for jaguars, giant
The concept is spreading to urban slums, shanties, favelas and other unmapped settlements across the developing world.
river otters, and endemic fish and birds like the Rio Branco antbird. The GPS screens featured customized symbols for key features that could be clearly recognized by the indigenous operators.

“After ten years of work, we are very proud of the end result,” said Kid James of the South Central People’s Development Association, which provided the technology. “We are now keen to share our territorial map with government authorities to show how we occupy and use the land according to custom and how we are attached to our territory.”

Of course, outsiders, particularly environment groups, have been producing maps of remote forests and indigenous territories for a long time. But proponents of participatory mapping say this method gives communities “ownership” of the results. The difference, they say, is as great as the difference between an outside film crew moving in to make a film of a forest community, or supplying digital cameras so the locals can make their own film.

The concept is now spreading to urban slums, shanties, favelas and other unmapped settlements across the developing world, where mapping is being deployed as part of community advocacy against real estate developers.

The street networks and buildings of these slums are often not marked on official maps because no official mappers have ever gone there. They are as much terra incognita to the official world as the rainforests of Africa. By mapping the roads, houses, and commercial activities of their communities, the inhabitants of the slums hope to emphasize to city officials their economic and social importance.


Satellites and Google Earth
A Potent Conservation Tool

Satellites and Google Earth Prove Potent Conservation Tool
Armed with vivid images from space and remote sensing data, scientists, environmentalists, and armchair conservationists are now tracking threats to the planet and making the information available to anyone with an Internet connection, Rhett Butler writes.
An upcoming special issue of the journal Environment and Urbanization will tell their stories. One paper describes mapping in Epworth, a slum suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Residents “armed with tape measures and paint” located the boundaries of every plot, marking hedges, wells, and toilets, as well as roads, drainage ditches, and other infrastructure, before digitizing the information and superimposing it onto satellite images from Google Earth. Then, says Beth Chitekwe-Biti of the Dialogue on Shelter for the Homeless in Zimbabwe Trust, a Zimbabwean NGO, they took the digitized data to planning officers as part of a campaign to get their tenure in the squatter colony officially recognized in law.

Similar projects are documented in slums in Cuttack in the Indian state of Orissa, Nairobi in Kenya, and several cities in Uganda. The journal’s editors conclude that when officials no longer see slums as hostile, unknown territory — when they recognize them as places where real people have lived for decades, building communities, improving their streets, and running businesses — then they will begin to see the point of preserving and investing in them, rather than sweeping them away.

Similarly, the hope is that once rainforest inhabitants are seen as custodians of the forests rather than destroyers, then their rights too may be more easily secured.

POSTED ON 15 Mar 2012 IN Energy Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Sustainability Africa Central & South America North America 


The GPS screens featured customized symbols for key features that could be clearly recognized by the indigenous operators.

Posted by www.beklemeyin.net on 16 Mar 2012

Excellent. This is what is needed! applying high-tech to solve ground level problems. Modernise the traditional - traditionalise the modern!

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 16 Mar 2012

This is very rare to see how the indigenous people can preserve their environment by using the GPS and to produce some maps using for many people. In this case, this experience is unique in the World. It's very excellent to do this job together with local community who are firstly the benefit of their land and forest. So, it will be necessary to know the aims of this projects and to apply this methods in others zones in the world where we find forest and indigenous communities. The concept is spreading, it's very interesting to do this. So, if we want to keep our biodiversity intact and very stable, it's a good idea to get more informations and to share this experience with others peoples in the world.

Thank you very much and nice to read this article, it's a pleasure for me to comment this one.



Posted by BAKABANA Parfait Charleston on 31 Mar 2012

This is what the Cofan, especially the Cofan forest rangers, have been doing in Ecuador as well, and it
has definitely helped them maintain their lands intact. They also use GPS to create boundary trails that they then monitor to keep out invaders.


Posted by Christine Fram on 02 Apr 2012

I find the use of technology being used to defend the rights of indigenous tribes to be amazing. My only concern is the impact of technology and political warfare on the make up of the tribes. By requiring them to become somewhat literate with computers does this interfering with the goal of maintaining a traditional life style? It’s a question that is brought up in a similar article at http://www.geoplace.com. Are the groups who are funding these projects addressing this issue?

Posted by Elizabeth on 20 Apr 2012

To the editors,

The overall goal of Fred Pearce’s article, as we understood it, was to inform the public of the spreading efforts of indigenous people to couple their local knowledge and interests with the latest technology (i.e., GPS) in order to safeguard their interests and further their land rights. This is an important subject and, for many, a novel aspect to bring to light. We are enthusiastic about efforts that accurately and successfully incorporate the knowledge and interests of local and indigenous people into national land use planning, especially if it is truly participatory. Unfortunately, embedded in this article were a number of factual inaccuracies about the work of the U.S. government, and the U.S. Forest Service in particular, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We offer here some corrections as well as some further information about the role of the U.S. Forest Service (and more broadly speaking the U.S. government) in technical assistance and capacity building for improved forest governance and sustainable forest management in DRC.

The U.S. government has long supported and indeed helped pilot ongoing community and participatory mapping efforts across Central Africa, including DRC, through the USAID Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE). CARPE works to reduce the rate of forest degradation and loss of biodiversity by supporting increased local, national, and regional natural resource management capacity. CARPE supports a variety of local and international NGOs, universities, and federal agencies which actively conduct technical assistance, training, and capacity building efforts including significant emphasis on on-the-ground activities in collaboration with local, indigenous, and national stakeholders in Central Africa. In apparent contrast to the article’s statement that “the official mapping does not require anyone to go into the field — or even to set foot in the Congo”, although this work is supplemented by highly technical and expert input from Congolese and international geospatial experts in DRC and the U.S., the heart of the effort occurs in villages many plane trips/car miles/motorcycle rides (often all three) from the DRC capital, by community members who indeed are equipped with GPS units. An important objective of these efforts is to help stakeholders pilot a process in which local people are able to share their own knowledge and express their own needs in order to identify formally areas for future conservation and community use. Thus, although the article discusses the “rival zoning process being funded by the U.S. government” in contrast to community efforts, the zoning activities funded by the U.S. government support direct collaborations between international NGOs, the DRC government, DRC NGOs, and community members, involving years of painstakingly detailed participatory meetings between local people in which they delineate the limits of their villages, their land uses, and their future needs. The article appears to have lambasted a process that represents the very idea that it was trying to publicize and presumably encourage.

Since 2007, the U.S. Forest Service has worked to support the sustainable management of the forests of the DRC as a part of CARPE. The U.S. Forest Service is helping the DRC Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation, and Tourism to work with partners including the World Bank (through the National Forest and Conservation project-PNFC) to develop procedures and processes to implement their 2002 Forest Law. In particular, the U.S. Forest Service is providing technical assistance to the process of zoning of the national forest estate so that DRC can pursue its development objectives while meeting its commitments to sustainable forest management at local, national, regional, and international levels. Sustainable forest management, biodiversity conservation, improving community and indigenous resource rights, and good governance are highly interdependent goals that must be approached simultaneously. Many of the problems encountered in the past with timber and mining concessions and protected areas can be avoided with a professional and participatory approach to planning rather than the sometimes haphazard and opportunistic approach of the past. Indeed without such an organized, multi-stakeholder, multi-interest, and transparent planning process, the history of allocating land uses inconsistent with local, national, regional, and international commitments and obligations is bound to repeat itself.

Some form of participatory land use planning in forests has been cited as a critical element by CARPE, the PNFC, the DRC’s overarching forest strategy PNFoCoand the DRC strategy for preparing for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) activities, among others. The underlying expectation is that, if truly participatory, well-developed, and sufficiently funded, a national zoning process would result in additional protected areas, community forests, and increased land tenure and indigenous rights for the Congolese who live in these forests, as well as timber concessions with viable management plans in the least developed country in the world (2011 UNDP Human Development Index). In order to support this participatory process, the U.S. Forest Service has provided technical input to the development and continued functioning of the interministerial, multistakeholder National Forest Zoning Steering Committee. Although the article quotes an anonymous source saying that “The zoning commission does not make any reference to communities and their participatory mapping”, this formal government structure is composed of community organizations, government agencies, and NGOs, and has among its objectives incorporating participatory mapping efforts into national forest zoning processes. In fact, this committee is currently focused on developing guidelines for national formalization of local and participatory mapping efforts. Efforts thus far on national level forest zoning have focused on institutions, methods, and process, slowly and deliberately laying the groundwork for a truly participatory land use planning process.

For more information on CARPE and USFS efforts in Central Africa, please see the following resources:





James Beck, M.Sc.
Africa Program Specialist
U.S. Forest Service International Programs
Washington DC

Toni Lyn Morelli, Ph.D.
Technical Advisor
USDA Forest Service International Programs
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

Posted by James Beck, M.Sc. and Toni Lyn Morelli, Ph.D. on 26 Jun 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the environmental consequences of humankind’s addiction to chemical fertilizers and the promise of “climate-smart” agriculture.



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