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Mapping project seeks to secure 'invisible' indigenous lands

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 September 2019 05:32 GMT

A indigenous man from the Tabajara tribe is seen in Tocantins river before the I World Games for Indigenous People in Palmas, Brazil, October 21, 2015. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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An online project aims to map all of the world's indigenous lands to secure legal rights and alert communities to the threats of illegal logging and mining

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Sept 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An online project mapping all of the world's indigenous lands will help secure legal rights, and alert communities to the potential threats of illegal logging and mining, land and indigenous rights groups said on Friday.

LandMark is compiling maps from dozens of indigenous organisations for its website - which it claims to be the first of its kind - and now covers 12% of the world's land.

The project, which includes areas recognised by governments, those with documentation or secure tenure, and those that are likely to be indigenous lands, has begun ramping up efforts to secure more maps.

"Many governments are not keen to acknowledge or recognise indigenous or community land, so official maps often do not visualise this land and it remains invisible," said Peter Veit, of World Resources Initiative (WRI), a Washington-based research organisation that is supporting the LandMark project.

"A global platform is particularly useful for comparative purposes, and to show which countries are making progress," the director of land and resource rights told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Globally, indigenous and local communities own more than half of all land under customary or traditional rights. Yet they have legal rights to only about 10%, according to the Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

Last month, a special report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time recognised indigenous land rights as important for curbing global warming.

In the Philippines, there is an urgent need to map indigenous lands due to the expansion of mining and plantations, said David De Vera, a director at the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID), a minorities network.

The Southeast Asian country was ranked the deadliest in the world last year for land rights activists by Britain-based Global Witness, with 30 killings.

"Indigenous people are the poorest of the poor. It is very difficult for them to claim their land or stand up to the government and industries," said De Vera, whose association is mapping indigenous lands for LandMark.

PAFID uses satellite maps, GPS devices, drones and 3D models to help communities map their ancestral land, he said.

"Threats from mines and dams are highly relevant, and those need to be on the map. Otherwise a map can give you a sense of false security," said De Vera.

Indigenous communities in Quezon province south of Manila plan to use their recently drawn maps to challenge the construction of the proposed Kaliwa dam, which will encroach onto their land and displace thousands of people, he said.

In India, millions of indigenous people and forest dwellers face eviction after their land claims were rejected.

The takeover of public lands such as forests, pastures and water bodies by states and industries could affect more than 350 million rural people in India, said Jagdeesh Rao, executive director at the Foundation for Ecological Security, a conservation group.

"Mapping is important to not just identify and give legitimacy to collectively owned land, but also to track degraded lands so they can be restored," he said.

With growing pressure on land and resources from both rising populations and industry, conflicts are seen increasing.

LandMark's maps can help avert such disputes, said WRI's Veit, but they are not enough.

"Legal recognition is critical, but alone is probably insufficient in many places to secure tenure," he said.

"It should be complimented with other measures that strengthen and secure land and natural resource rights", he added, such as formal titles and declarations of these areas as protected.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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