Community maps reveal rich resources on “empty” land

Thursday, 25 April 2013 16:12 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Policymakers may see Kenya’s Isiolo area as barren and dusty, but a community-drawn map is changing perceptions

Misperceptions of the drylands as barren and empty are leading to their mismanagement. An International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) mapping project aims to create a clearer picture of their value to pastoralists.

"It's all in the mind," George Harrison once said. When most government planners look at Kenya’s Isiolo County, they see barren, dusty land. But pastoralists who live there see something else entirely. How do we know? It’s on their map.

"When you look at a traditional map of the area, it’s just a vast wilderness with hardly anything on it," says Homme Zwaagstra, a consultant on the project. "Whereas when you lay the resource maps we’ve been creating on there, it suddenly becomes a rich, diverse catalogue of resources that are useful”.

When Kenyan expert in pastoral development Daoud Tari Abkula saw the map he likened its detail to an "A-Z of London".

Ced Hesse, a principal researcher in IIED’s climate change group, presented the project at the 7th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change this week in Bangladesh. He explained that the land "suddenly came to life" in the minds of local government planners who saw the maps and had previously thought the land to be "vast and empty". This is because maps validated the detailed social and economic knowledge that pastoralists have of the lands they live on.


The maps also help communities to articulate their local knowledge in a language that more scientifically-minded government planners understand. "The maps act as a bridge where both sides understand spatial information – in different ways," said Hesse. "By capturing it, there is a progression of information that becomes increasingly intelligible to planners."

Perceptions matter. Under Kenya's new constitution, the central government is devolving power to the county level. Local government holds land in trust for the communities. But because the government rarely sees the land’s true economic value, "if an investor comes in there is a risk it will be given away," said Hesse.

Recent developments in neighbouring Tanzania highlight the risks. In March Tanzania's Ministry of Tourism said it would set aside 1,500 square kilometres bordering the Serengeti national park as a corridor for wildlife, blocking local Maasai communities from accessing their pasture land but granting access to a Dubai-based luxury hunting and safari company.

If pastoralists from Isiolo county have a map of their area, they have a point of reference to discuss with their local government representatives. "Having a validated map of resources to take to discussions and meetings that involve the dissemination of funds from the county level down will be of massive use to them," said Zwaagstra.

In both Tanzania and Kenya the legal framework allows for local government to pass by-laws over land, forests, and rangelands under their legal jurisdiction. The maps could also be used as the basis for establishing by-laws at local government level.

"The maps bring the resources to life and make them tangible," said Hesse. They are a step towards "legally recognising that for pastoralism to work these are resources that need to be protected and managed."


To generate the maps, communities from Isiolo county worked with facilitators to mark what they perceived as their key resources, such as water sources, grazing areas and markets. First they traced out the map out on the ground with sticks and stones. The researchers then transformed a paper copy into a geo-referenced digital map. This is what it currently looks like but the map is a 'live' dataset that can be updated over time with improvements and additions.

Unsurprisingly in such a dry area, the map shows water sources. Boreholes, dams, hand pumps and shallow wells are all listed. The map also indicates water availability based on available data.  

To build the map, the team used a Google Earth map and Quantum, an open source GIS tool, to build the map features. All the software used – apart from Google Earth – is open source so it’s available for free from the internet and can be downloaded and used by anyone. Eventually all the information will go onto a central database and won’t use Google Earth.

The maps demonstrate the diversity and complexity of the rangelands. For example, the community has identified over 200 species of grass that react differently to rainfall patterns. The quality of grasses depends on the rainfall.

"Local people are constantly looking at the sky," said Hesse. "Is it going to rain, is it not going to rain? Where is it going to rain? When?" By collecting data about rainfall local people and planners can monitor the quality of the rangelands and get a sense of what tomorrow might bring.  

Pastoralists are very in tune with their environmental and climatic knowledge. They use that knowledge to make decisions to leave or stay on their current grazing grounds. Those decisions are not easy ones to make. The mapping project could make them easier and help them advocate for better management of the land they know so intimately.