Back in 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People—those who identify as descendants of pre-colonial inhabitants within a region and who retain close ties to their traditional cultural and economic practices. The declaration, signed by 144 member nations, recognized a range of basic human rights for native communities—including the right to land use, control, and ownership.
But the declaration isn’t legally binding, which means there are still many governments out there that don’t formally recognize the rights of indigenous groups. And with the expanding worldwide population and commercial interest in gobbling up new land, it’s hard for such communities to claim what is rightfully theirs. It’s even more difficult when there’s no systematic way of illustrating the boundaries.
That’s what a coalition of advocacy groups from around the world, including the World Resource Institute, wants to change with a first-of-its-kind mapping tool called LandMark.
Globally, there are at least 370 million indigenous people across some 70 countries. Together they make up 5 percent of the world’s population, and the territory they claim rights to encompasses 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. And yet, they legally own just 11 percent of those lands, according to the World Bank.
LandMark’s interactive platform uses data cited in academic research and provided by experts and established organizations to outline several things: On a national level, the map shows the percentage of land used by indigenous communities and the “tenure security” of that land. For example, in the majority of African countries, between 80 and 100 percent of the land is used by indigenous and native communities. But in most of those countries, those lands aren’t formally recognized. On a community level, LandMark gives viewers a more detailed look at the boundaries. The map isn’t complete, and WRI is looking for more organizations to contribute data.
Can a map really change things?
Many countries have had a history of discriminatory laws pertaining to land rights. Australia, where the Aboriginal population is expected to reach more than 700,000 in by 2021, has some of the worst land practices among western nations. “In our fight for land rights in the 1970s and 1980s, we dodged bullets, we got beat up and locked up,” Sol Bellear, a respected Aboriginal activist, recalls in The Guardian.
In Cambodia, where indigenous groups make up less than 2 percent of the population, the government passed a law in 2001 granting them land rights. Yet more than 16 million acres of forest have been given to large timber companies, according to the UN. In Brazil, indigenous groups are battling proposed reforms that would give federal officials—many of whom are linked to agricultural business leaders—the power to decide their land rights.
In the U.S., Native Americans are no strangers to long-running land disputes with large companies. During the 1950s, there were even “termination” laws designed specifically to eliminate the existence of Native American territories within the U.S., says Claudio Saunt, a researcher at the University of Georgia who focuses on Native American history.
Today, a group called the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona has been trying to protect a piece of land from becoming part of a large mining project—a project that’s already underway. The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange bill that gave the company Resolution Copper federal approval passed in 2013, but has now come under fire by politicians including senators Bernie Sanders and Tammy Baldwin.
On its website, WRI says that LandMark will provide a strong platform to counter threats and land disputes. The organizers hope that governments and individual communities will use the map to increase the visibility of indigenous and native communities, that private companies will examine it before grabbing land, and that academics, nonprofits, and citizens use it for research and advocacy initiatives.
Saunt, who wasn’t involved in the project, says he admires the global perspective the map provides. But he also wonders if the map—and increased visibility in general—could potentially become a double-edged sword for some groups. “These [maps] can be used to defend, but also attack, indigenous lands and rights,” he says. That’s what happened in the U.S. during the 19th century: Land speculators used incredibly detailed maps to “identify valuable land, figure out who was living there, and then coerced or cheat them to pry the land away from them.”
The organizers behind LandMark also acknowledge its political limits. Some governments don’t allow community mapping, or permit the use of community-based maps in legal proceedings.
“These maps do us no good unless they become public knowledge,” Abdon Nababan, secretary-general of the Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago, said in a statement. “And [unless] indigenous rights are recognized by all who have ambitions to grab our lands, and these rights are actively protected by government.”