Geo-Ethics of Indigenous Community Mapping 

The Power of Maps

Maps have historically played a role in the colonial acquisition of land and are still used today to justify the appropriation of Indigenous territories. Originally crafted for exploring new lands in search of raw material to exploit, maps are now being used by Indigenous communities in an attempt to safeguard the Earth’s resources and protect their customary lands. Occupying an estimated 20% of the Earth’s territory, they are the guardians of the planet’s last bastions of biodiversity, yet do not have a seat at the tables of power. Indigenous groups have longstanding ancestral ties with their land but often lack the kind of formal title needed to defend it. Mapping done by local advocacy groups is now helping them formalize their claims.

Mapping efforts have been criticized for imposing increased intervention from a state which has historically been aggressive towards their people and for attempting to replace Indigenous conceptions of territory and property. Some communities resist being mapped to protect themselves, as these maps can be turned against them—a reality they have faced for centuries. Conforming with state-led conceptions of territory does not guarantee the safety of their land, as maps can still be used for exploitation when put in the wrong hands.

By nature, there is a significant divide between Western GIScience and Indigenous ontologies in their conceptions of territory. The aural nature of Indigenous knowledge conflicts with contemporary drawn borders and ways of dividing up land and resources. Despite these differences, many Indigenous groups have acknowledged the power of using GIS as an advantageous tool in legal battles for land rights. Local groups like the Society for Rights of Indigenous People of Sarawak (SCRIPS) in Borneo and the Ceibo Alliance in Ecuador are pioneering mapping efforts. Through capacity building and collaboration, maps can be created in a way that empowers Indigenous communities and communicates their knowledge visually.

Indigenous Mapping in Sarawak

In Sarawak, Malaysia, Indigenous peoples are facing displacement from their customary land due to the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations. The activities of large companies like SOP Borneo Plantations are sponsored by the state government and continue to bring deforestation, pollution of air and water, and loss of biodiversity. The Penan, one of many ethnic groups living in the forests of Borneo, have begun local efforts to protect their land from these encroachments. 

A Penan leader from SCRIPS, Michael Jok, explains: “Sarawak’s natives have a history dating back centuries, but until today not much effort had been taken to document them. Their history now are only in oral form, passed down from one generation to the next.” The Malay phrase adopted as SCRIPS’ guiding principle, “Menua kitai Tanah Kita – Tanah kitai Pengidup kitai” (Our Territory is our Land – Our Land is our Life), underscores the integral role of the forest in the history, home, ancestral heritage, and identity of Indigenous communities. Without written histories, places serve as repositories for traditions and culture, making their connection to the land a crucial aspect of their cultural identity. Displacement and destruction of the land jeopardize these ties, and documenting them may be their only method of protection.

To create a physical representation of their connections to the land, community members first come together to outline the community’s historical territory and to note important landmarks. Then, a team goes into the field with handheld GPS to find corresponding coordinates. Using their collected data and drone images, they create a map that displays community land use and licenses for forests. The work isn’t done once the map is created. Since the Penan do not hold official title to the land, which was passed down to them over centuries, they continue to fight for legal recognition. 

Oral histories are used to outline the community’s historical territory and to note important landmarks (left). Then, a team goes into the field with handheld GPS to find corresponding coordinates and create a map that displays community land use and licenses for forests (right).

Mapping Waorani in the Amazon

Similar mapping processes have been used by the Indigenous Waorani of Ecuador’s Amazon. At one point, the Waorani maintained one of the most extensive territories among Ecuador’s Indigenous groups, however the intrusion of oil activities have inflicted substantial damage on Waorani territories and resources. Oil operations near Yasuní National Park have greatly impacted Waorani communities, affecting their water supplies downstream from oil activity. The Ecuadorian government’s decision to start oil drilling in the park posed a direct threat to the Waorani, even those residing within the protected area. The Waorani won a landmark legal victory to protect their land from oil exploration in 2019, however, industry activity persists in the Amazon continues to impact Indigenous livelihoods. 

At the start of the mapping process, Waorani elders created hand-drawn maps from memory. Together, they mapped 1,800 square km, noting rivers, paths, hunting trails, sensitive ecosystems and identifying areas for medicinal plants, fruit, and fishing. Driven by the elders’ wisdom and collective memory, they created 9,300 georeferenced points. The community received training in GPS, mapping software, and video cameras. Then, guided by pikenani, or traditional leaders, a group from the Ceibo Alliance set out to record information in the field. 

Community members hand-draw a map of significant places. The project was supported by a collaboration from the Ceibo Alliance, Amazon Frontlines, and Digital Democracy: 

Waorani conceptions of place, as articulated by Nemonte Nequimo, a leader of the Waorani people, challenge conventional notions of mapping. She observes, “every time I go to a school, I only see empty maps of Ecuador, with no animals, birds or plants,” highlighting the absence of Indigenous perspectives on these maps. For Indigenous communities like the Waorani, the territory is not merely a border drawn on the land, but rather, it embodies a complex assemblage of interactions between nature and people. 

The intention behind mapping projects by groups like the Ceibo Alliance is to use these maps as tools to communicate the intricate relationships Indigenous peoples have with their land. They aim to create maps that show “something without a price.” In Indigenous customary tenure, nature is not seen as a commodity or object for exploitation but as a reciprocal relationship that grounds their community and identity. To navigate these differences, the process involved constant negotiation with the mapping team between the ways the Waorani viewed their land and accessibility to an external audience.

A map that was created by the Waorani village of Nemonpare with support of the Ceibo Alliance. Explore the map here: 

Ethical Cartography

Both the case of the Penan and the Waorani demonstrate how mapping projects can bridge the gap between contrasting conceptions of place. One of the most vital aspects of each process was the centering and leadership of Indigenous peoples. To represent the needs of the community correctly, the process requires continuous dialogue back and forth to mediate between the two systems of knowledge. When outside groups engage in Indigenous community mapping projects, it’s important that the following ethical considerations are implemented:

  1. Informed consent: Transparency in the purpose of mapping and how data will be used
  2. Cultural sensitivity and humility: Respecting Indigenous knowledge systems and practices
  3. Data sovereignty: Indigenous peoples should have ownership and control over their data and spatial representations
  4. Privacy: Data collection can reveal sensitive information, so it is important to ensure privacy to prevent exploitation or harm
  5. Capacity building: Training community members in GIS and using local leadership can empower Indigenous people to actively participate in the mapping process

The phrase coined by philosopher Alfred Korzybski, ‘The Map is Not the Territory,’ describes the logical fallacy of believing that a map is the reality of the territory it represents. Throughout history, the ones in power have been the ones mapping the territory, thereby defining what the territory is within their political system. Consequently, those excluded do not have their space recognized by the system. These projects have aimed to shift the locus of power towards Indigenous peoples and communicate how they live with the land. Letting Indigenous knowledge and perspectives lead ensures that maps become tools of empowerment rather than weapons of marginalization.


Community Mapping | CICADA 

The race to put Indigenous land on the map – Rest of World 

Waorani – Amazon Frontlines 

Data sovereignty, open mapping and Indigenous territories | Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

Ecuador: Waorani people map their rainforest to save it