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First-of-its-kind mapping platform could help protect land held by Indigenous communities

  • Beta version of the unique online platform, LandMark, was launched on November 10.
  • LandMark makes global data on land held and used by communities and indigenous peoples accessible on a single platform.
  • Platform aims to “make clear that community lands are not vacant, idle or available to outsiders,” according to statement.

By mapping such community lands, LandMark aims to “make clear that these lands are not vacant, idle or available to outsiders,” according to a statement by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a member of the steering group.

“This is a unique and path breaking tool,” Andy White, Coordinator of Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), said at the launch of LandMark in Washington DC on November 10. Data of this kind has never been so accessible on a single platform, he added.

In September, a report released by RRI showed that indigenous communities have legal rights to only a fraction of the land they manage: while the communities hold around 65 percent of the world’s land area through customary systems, they have legal rights to only 10 percent of their land.

This huge gap makes the communities vulnerable, destroys their livelihoods, leads to environmental destruction, accelerates climate change, and increases strife and conflict, the report notes.

A report in 2014 found that community forests tend to face lower rates of deforestation than forests managed by governments alone. Photo by Rhett Butler.

According to White, LandMark can be very useful in safeguarding communities and assuaging strife. By making global data on lands held by communities and indigenous peoples accessible on a single platform, LandMark has the potential to help communities protect their lands. It also has the potential to help governments and private companies make correct choices and avoid land-grabbing.

Safeguarding community land is especially important since there is growing evidence that community lands have greater positive impact on the environment than those managed by governments or private companies alone.

For instance, a 2014 report by WRI and RRI found that Brazil’s community forests faced 11 times lower deforestation than land that was outside these forests’ boundaries. The report also found that lower deforestation in community forests translated to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.

Another report by the Forest Peoples Programme and the Peruvian indigenous organization AIDESEP in 2014, found that indigenous communities were among the best protectors of Peru’s forests.

Previous research has found that land managed by local communities tends to be better protected from major human-caused disturbances like deforestation than land managed by private organizations and governments. For example, Global Forest Watch shows the indigenous territories held by the Kayapo, Menkragnoti, Badjonkore, Bau, and Panara communities in the Brazilian state of Para lost much less tree cover and still contain much more extensive intact forest landscapes (large areas of primary forest) than land outside their borders. Specifically, this indigenous territory lost less than 1 percent of its tree cover compared to 19 percent outside. Map composed of imagery from LandMark and Global Forest Watch.

“To us, the detailed mapping of our ancestral territories, led by local indigenous communities, help us articulate our constitutionally recognized rights,” Abdon Nababan, Secretary-General of the Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), said in the statement. “But these maps do us no good unless they become public knowledge and indigenous rights are recognized by all who have ambitions to grab our lands, and these rights are actively protected by government. LandMark is an important tool for us in the process of gaining legal recognition of our constitutional rights.”

The newly launched beta version of LandMark shows best available data at the community level and national level.

At the community level, data includes boundaries and coordinates of community lands under two categories: those that are formally recognized by the governments and those that are not. Clicking on the maps lets users access additional information about the land including sources of the data. At the national level, LandMark gives the percent of land held or used by Indigenous Peoples and communities, and provides an indicator of the legal security of their land.

LandMark also allows users to find out what community lands exist within an area of interest. However, for many countries, such as those in Africa, data on community lands is currently unavailable. This does not mean that these countries lack community lands, though, the LandMark homepage warns.

“LandMark is a work in progress,” the note states. “New maps and information are continuously added to the platform, but many gaps remain. Note that the absence of data does not indicate the absence of indigenous or community land.”

To fill up the missing blanks, developers of LandMark call for information sharing “to improve the completeness of the platform.”

“This is a future-looking initiative,” Liz Alden Wily, an international land specialist resident in Kenya, said at LandMark’s launch. “The notion that without paper title millions of hectares are unowned has become an intolerable fiction and an abuse of human rights that cannot be sustained in today’s connected world,” she added in a statement. “Secure rural tenure for all is also a logical platform for more inclusive economic growth. Securing community lands is as much about looking forward to a sounder future as about remedy of legally dubious and unjust pasts.”