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New map could help protect indigenous land in Central America

Two Kaqchikel women in Guatemala. (Credit: John Barrie/Flickr)

The areas occupied by hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples have been plotted on a groundbreaking new map of Central America. According to the map’s creators, the new wealth of information could help protect valuable regions from deforestation and harmful development.

The main purpose of the map, which was financed by the Danish government, National Geographic and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is to encourage respect for land rights of indigenous peoples and more sustainable use of the forests and other valuable regions that they occupy.

(Credit: International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Indigenous groups and governments join IUCN to map stunning ecosystems under care of indigenous peoples. (Credit: International Union for Conservation of Nature)

According to the makers, it is the most comprehensive map ever created of the areas occupied by 80 different indigenous peoples. The map is unprecedented in that it utilizes native knowledge from 3,500 indigenous people who participated in more than 130 mapping workshops across the region.

“This is a map where the Indigenous areas are mapped by indigenous people, who filled it with elements of interest to them,” said Mac Chapin, a technical adviser to the project’s team of Central American professionals, in a statement from IUCN. “They literally put themselves on the map.”

The creation of the map took more than two years with the help of cartographers, anthropologists, environmentalists and other professionals, who located many previously unplotted indigenous communities as well as bodies of water that are overlooked by satellite images.

Already, the map is being put to use by indigenous groups whose lands are under increasing threat from loggers, miners, drug traffickers, and other economic and development interests.

In Western Panama, Tico Times reported, the Ngäbe people were able to demonstrate that the construction of the Barro Blanco dam would flood and damage their territory. In a similar sense, a Maya community in Guatemala has utilized the map’s data to assert its rights over ancestral lands that leaders say were illegally expropriated by palm oil companies.

The fact that this information could help lead to such achievements is especially significant after the recent death of Honduran indigenous leader Berta Caceres, who was killed for leading a peaceful protest against the construction of a hydroelectric dam indigenous land.

“The map is an instrument that allows indigenous peoples to advance the recognition, respect and promotion of their rights,” Ramiro Batzin, Sotz’il Association representative and member of the Central American Indigenous Council (CICA) that worked on the map, told the Tico Times. “It will serve us as a valuable tool for advocating for a greater role for indigenous peoples in natural resource conservation, and for opening up a dialogue with states and conservation organizations.”

This collaboration between environmentalists, governments and indigenous populations is now more important than ever, as mounting evidence suggests that forests that are legally recognized and protected by governments often see less deforestation and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

In other words, protecting the land rights of traditional peoples can make a major contribution to slowing climate change.

“If we want to protect the world’s forests, we must safeguard the rights of the indigenous peoples and forest communities who have sustainably managed their forests for generations,” said Helen Clark, the administrator of the U.N. Development Program, at the recent New York signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change. “Clarifying local land rights and tenure security will be a crucial determinant of success for the new global frameworks on climate change and sustainable development.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at