As much as two-thirds of the world’s land area is in indigenous and community lands, although many are not formally recognized.

New Interactive Map Helps Tribes Defend Land Rights

Barbara Fraser

A new online interactive map of indigenous and community lands could help communities defend their land rights and head off land grabs by outsiders, its creators say.

The map, shows boundaries of indigenous and community lands, whether or not they are formally recognized, as well as levels of legal security of land rights. It also provides information about national land-tenure regulations and the sources of the data.

“We think that shining a light on these lands is an important part of the process of protecting (them),” Peter Veit, director of the Land and Resource Rights Initiative at the Washington-based World Resources Institute, told Indian Country Today in a telephone interview.

The World Resources Institute is part of a group of non-profit organizations that developed the map.

As much as two-thirds of the world’s land area is in indigenous and community lands, although many are not formally recognized, Liz Alden Wily, an independent land-tenure expert involved in the project, said at an event unveiling the map in Washington, D.C., on November 10.

Making indigenous territories more visible is especially important as the decisive climate summit scheduled for December in Paris approaches, said Andy White, coordinator of the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, which was also involved in developing the map.

Studies have found that rates of deforestation—a key source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming—are often even lower on indigenous lands than in government-designated protected areas. That makes those lands important for storing carbon.

“More and more people are seeing this as part of the solution to global climate change, coming from people from outside the system who have no rights,” Samuel Nguiffo, secretary general of the Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement in Cameroon, said at the unveiling of the map.

“Many climate change solutions are linked to the lands and forests of indigenous people, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur for indigenous peoples, told Indian Country Today by telephone from Honduras, where she was on a fact-finding visit.

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The map shows “that Indigenous Peoples are contributing to solutions to environmental and economic problems,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “The way indigenous people have conserved their forest happens because at least their rights to the forest are respected.”

Private companies can use the map to ensure that their proposed development projects do not infringe on community landholdings, the developers said. They pilot tested the map with several companies, which “see this as a sort of first-order title search” when they are looking for land for agriculture or development projects, Veit said.

“Many (companies) no longer believe that land being offered to them by governments is vacant and idle,” he said. “As the cost of contested land for companies increases, they want to decrease their risks.”

Communities and their supporters around the world have contributed data for the map, although gaps remain.

Community-level data are available for parts of the world, such as the Amazon basin, while only national data are available for Africa, Veit said. The developers hope that having the site on line will encourage more communities to add their data.

“I think this platform will never be final,” Veit said. “There will always be changes. Laws will be changed, indicators will need to be adjusted, boundaries may change. It will need to be managed to make sure it’s as current as possible.”

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