- The map shows that Indigenous territories comprise more than half of the region’s forests and many of its waterways, making Indigenous communities critical guardians of Central America’s most fragile ecosystems.
- At approximately 282,000 square kilometers (about 109,000 square miles), the total area covered by traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples in the region is more than five times the size of Costa Rica, and more than a third of that land has already been designated as protected by local governments.
- The IUCN map identifies 948 recognized terrestrial and marine protected areas in Central America, 39 percent of which — or some 96,432 square kilometers (a little over 37,000 square miles) — are home to Indigenous Peoples.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has released a new map intended to call attention to the potential benefits of conservationists and governments working together with Indigenous Peoples of Central America.
Together with accompanying charts that detail the names, populations, and locations of Indigenous Peoples throughout the region, the IUCN hopes the new map will contribute to the body of evidence that shows a rights-based approach to conservation can ensure not just sustainable use of biodiversity and resources, but also respect for the land tenure of Indigenous Peoples, who occupy vast swaths of Central America.
The map shows that Indigenous territories comprise more than half of the region’s forests and many of its waterways, making Indigenous communities critical guardians of Central America’s most fragile ecosystems. At approximately 282,000 square kilometers (about 109,000 square miles), the total area covered by traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples in the region is more than five times the size of Costa Rica, and more than a third of that land has already been designated as protected by local governments.
The IUCN map identifies 948 recognized terrestrial and marine protected areas in Central America, 39 percent of which — or some 96,432 square kilometers (a little over 37,000 square miles) — are home to Indigenous Peoples. About 44 percent of Central American forests were found to be located inside areas inhabited and used by Indigenous Peoples, and much of that land still contains intact ecosystems, though they are under intense pressure due to unsustainable economic models, the IUCN said in a statement.
These new findings undoubtedly present a major conservation opportunity. Research has shown that supporting Indigenous Peoples’ rights to maintain their way of life is an effective means of preserving biodiversity. In other words, Indigenous community forest rights that are legally recognized and protected by governments often mean reduced deforestation and lower emissions of carbon dioxide.
This is also far from the first time that research has shown recognizing Indigenous communities’ land rights to be smart climate policy, of course. According to an analysis by the Woods Hole Research Center released at the Paris climate talks last December, for instance, Indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin, the Mesoamerican region, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia contain more than 20 percent of the carbon stored aboveground in Earth’s tropical forests.
“You cannot talk about conservation without speaking of Indigenous Peoples and their role as the guardians of our most delicate lands and waters,” Grethel Aguilar, Regional Director of the IUCN Office for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, said in a statement.
“This map shows that where Indigenous People live, you will find the best preserved natural resources. They depend on those natural resources to survive, and the rest of society depends on their role in safeguarding those resources for the well-being of us all.”
Jose Antonio Galdames, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment and Mining in Honduras, called the IUCN map an essential tool for promoting collaboration between Indigenous Peoples and Central American governments to protect forest, marine, and coastal areas.
“Much of Central America is occupied by Indigenous Peoples, which is why we clearly advocate the need for our governments to expand opportunities to strengthen strategic alliances with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in our efforts to address the conservation and use of biodiversity, and the protection and management of forest, coastal and marine resources,” Galdames said in a statement.
Map created for and by Indigenous Peoples
Using funds provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the Ford Foundation, and the National Geographic Society, among others, the new map was produced by IUCN using state-of-the-art satellite imaging techniques and the participation of Indigenous Peoples themselves. The map also incorporates critical data on forest cover and the boundaries of protected areas, which were supplied by Central American governments.
The IUCN’s cartographers worked with approximately 3,500 Indigenous people — including Indigenous researchers, cartographers, social scientists, environmental scientists, and technicians — who participated in more than 130 mapping workshops across Central America.
“This is a map where the Indigenous areas are mapped by Indigenous people, who filled it with elements of interest to them. They literally put themselves on the map,” Mac Chapin, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a statement. Chapin was the driving force behind a mapping effort begun 14 years ago that was the precursor to the map produced by IUCN.
“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 (CAIC), said in a statement.
“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.”
“The map has been built from the communities, and it now has legitimacy because they have been the ones to say, ‘here we are; this is happening in our communities,’” Jesús Amadeo Martínez, CAIC’s President, said in a statement.
“The main value of this map is that Indigenous Peoples, organizations and communities will have a support tool for confronting processes such as land titling to Indigenous territories and recognition of Indigenous Peoples that are taking place in Central America.”