Indigenous communities deploy high-tech mapmaking to staunch global land grab

Posted By News On August 30, 2013 - 12:30am

SAMOSIR, NORTH SUMATRA (30 August 2013)—With governments, loggers, miners and palm oil producers poaching their lands with impunity, indigenous leaders from 17 countries gathered on a remote island in Sumatra this week to launch a global fight for their rights that will take advantage of powerful mapping tools combined with indigenous knowledge to mark traditional boundaries.

"It's amazing to see indigenous groups from all over the world coming here armed with hundreds of detailed maps they have created with things like handheld GPS devices and Internet mapping apps," said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, head of the Philippines-based Tebtebba, one of the co-organizers of the Global Conference on Community Participatory Mapping on Indigenous Peoples' Territories, which took place on the edge of the largest volcanic lake in the world. "It's a new and vivid way to illustrate how they and their ancestors have inhabited and worked these lands for thousands of years and have every right to assert their ownership."

Indigenous groups from countries including Malaysia, Nepal, Panama, Mexico and Brazil, explained how they have adopted affordable, high-tech mapping technology to retrace the history of their land ownership and catalog their natural resources. Their hope is that detailed maps can help them fight the destruction of vast tracks of forests, peatlands and waterways—brazen incursions by government and industry that not only deprive indigenous peoples of their lands but also greatly accelerate the global loss of biodiversity and accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

For example, participants at the conference believe maps of this sort could help bolster the fight in Indonesia to stop the steady loss of traditional lands to palm oil production, logging and other industrial needs. Participants issued a declaration calling on the government of Indonesia to pass legislation, currently under consideration by the nation's Parliament, which would provide new protections for the country's 50 million indigenous peoples.

"We need to take advantage of new mapping tools to accelerate the process of mapping the more than 30 million hectares we have left to document—before they are swallowed up by plantations," said Abdon Nababan, secretary general of Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), which has helped communities across the country to map their customary forests as part of their efforts to defend their lands against development by palm oil and other industrial plantations and mining.

A recent report stated that the Indonesian government's continued practice of granting national and international companies permission to convert millions of hectares of forests to palm oil and other plantations on lands that overlap with or abut indigenous territories often leads to the displacement of indigenous peoples—and a rash of sometimes-violent land disputes. The report on the state of large-scale agribusiness expansion in Southeast Asia by the Forest Peoples Programme, also noted that the country faced more than 280 land conflicts across the country in 2012.

"Lines on a map have always been a source of conflict, but they are becoming more and more contentious around the world today," said Tauli-Corpuz. "In many cases, government and military maps don't acknowledge the presence of indigenous territories, leaving these communities vulnerable to land rights violations and conflicts, as well as the loss of their sustainable livelihoods, the onset of poverty, environmental degradation, and the loss of cultural heritage. Indigenous peoples are creating maps to protect their customary lands."

Sleek computer-generated Indonesian maps presented at the conference documented cases in which the government had handed over indigenous territories to developers. In the case of the Lusan community in Borneo, three different government agencies had handed a community's land over to three different companies—a logging group, a mining operation and a palm oil plantation.

"Without maps, it is difficult for indigenous peoples to prove that they have occupied their ancestral lands for centuries," said Giacomo Rambaldi, a senior program coordinator at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), who has helped indigenous peoples to develop maps for more than 15 years. "If you are able to document and map your use of the resources since time immemorial, you have a chance of asserting your rights over land and water."

It Takes a Village

Unlike satellite images or traditional political maps, the maps presented at the conference document key cultural and social sites, such as burial grounds, caches of medicinal plants, hunting trails or groves of specific species of trees. Based on pre-existing maps, satellite images or coordinates generated by hand-held GPS devices, these computer-generated documents or models record knowledge passed down through generations and integrate input from the entire community—including women and youth.

Conference participants heard that indigenous communities have successfully used these maps to protect their lands from land grabs and to monitor the impact of external forces on their lands.

  • In Brazil, South America's largest democracy, an Afro-Brazilian community used a map to stop Cyclone-4, a space company jointly owned by Brazil and Ukraine, from expanding into their lands to build rocket launchers. These maps refuted claims by the company that only 10 communities would be impacted by the development by showing that more than 100 communities would be displaced. Cyclone-4's expansion was blocked—though the government continues its efforts to build the rocket launchers on indigenous territories.

  • In Panama, which loses one percent of its tropical forests each year, members of the Guna community created a map—in the Guna language—to determine if the expansion of croplands had damaged sacred sites located in the rainforests surrounding their community. The map also served to show younger generations where these sites are located.

  • In Indonesia, the village of Pandumaan produced hand-drawn maps to scale, based on GPS data, to show that a pulp and paper company encroaching on their lands had razed the forests they rely on for myrrh—a fragrant resin that they sell for a living and use in spiritual rituals.

  • In Malaysia, which, along with Indonesia, is a leader in palm oil production, communities have used maps to win 25 of the 250 land disputes brought in front of the courts since 2001. The government continues to appeal the 25 cases that it lost in an attempt to regain the lands from indigenous peoples.

40 Million Hectares by 2020

Indonesia's 2,200 indigenous communities, spread out across the country's 18,307 islands, are the most prolific indigenous map-makers, the conference revealed. These mapping efforts have added urgency, since the country's Constitutional Court decided in May that a line in the country's 1999 Forestry Law, which states that customary forests are state forests, is not constitutional. To take advantage of this decision, which would first have to be implemented in national and local law, experts from the conference said it's crucial for indigenous peoples to put these forests on paper.

AMAN's Abdon Nababan said that he hopes to help map all 40 million hectares of land by 2020, and he called on the national Parliament to speed up the adoption of the Law on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The body is currently reviewing a draft of the law.

"Without Indigenous Peoples, There Would Be No Forests"

"Mapping not only empowers indigenous communities with evidence that they can use to assert their land rights, it also provides communities with the ability to catalog the natural resources sheltered in their territories," said Tauli-Corpuz, the head of Tebtebba. "These maps successfully demonstrate what we already know: that indigenous peoples are the best custodians of their forests and lands."

A study by The International Union for Conservation of Nature finds that biodiversity thrives in indigenous territories where communities are free to engage in hunting and other sustainable uses of natural resources—as opposed to state-held protected areas that ban such activities.

The National Coalition of Indigenous Peoples (KASAPI) in the Philippines arrived at the same conclusion. The project, which inventoried the resources in indigenous communities across the country, concluded from evidence gathered on the ground and from village elders—who recalled which species of plants have disappeared since their youth—that forests and lands owned and managed by indigenous peoples have stronger biodiversity than those that are under government control.

According to conference participants, maps that document a territory's biodiversity provide indigenous communities and national governments alike with "baseline" knowledge about the health of their natural resources, enabling them to monitor changes to natural resources, such as the restoration—or degradation—of forests over time. Participants added that maps like these can show the impacts of climate change—and aid in the tracking of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Vu Thi Hien of the Centre of Research and Development in Upland Areas (CERDA), taught members of the Thai Nguyen community in Vietnam how to map in order to support an international climate change effort to reduce climate change through the protection and preservations of forests, known as REDD+. She said that local authorities were so impressed with the professionalism and accuracy of the maps that they adopted the maps for their own use.

"If the community is not empowered to assert their rights, they can only go so far, even with strong laws supporting land rights," Tauli-Corpuz said.

Alaska’s outdated maps make flying a peril, but a high-tech fix is slowly gaining ground
By Lori Montgomery October 14, 2014

The rugged terrain of Alaska’s Mystic Pass, looking north. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

MYSTIC PASS, Alaska — In the age of Google Earth, it’s tempting to think human knowledge of the world is complete, with no frontiers to be charted. Which is why Alex Stack thought modern technology could get him through the mighty Alaska Range after a successful 2006 moose hunt.

Stack and his buddies Aric Beane and James Eule hit bad weather as they flew home through Mystic Pass, a narrow valley winding through 8,000-foot peaks southwest of Mount McKinley. One minute, the weather was fine; the next, clouds were rolling down the snow-streaked ridges.

“Have you ever been in 100 percent fog? That’s exactly what it’s like,” recalled Eule, an Anchorage surgeon. “You’re flying blind, knowing there’s mountains all around you.”

Alone in a nimble Cessna, Eule was able to turn around. Stack and Beane, in a larger plane carrying most of the 1,000-pound moose, were forced to press on, eyes glued to a handheld GPS screen, praying its fusion of satellite signals and government terrain maps would guide them to safety.

Unfortunately, the maps were wrong.

Alaska, it turns out, has never been mapped to modern standards. While the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is constantly refining its work in the lower 48 states, the terrain data in Alaska is more than 50 years old, much of it hand-sketched from black-and-white stereo photos shot from World War II reconnaissance craft and U-2 spy planes.

Errors abound. Locals tell of mountains as much as a mile out of place. Streams flow uphill, and ridges are missing because a cloud happened by when the photo was taken.

“Mars is better mapped than the state of Alaska,” said Steve Colligan, president of E-Terra, an Anchorage mapping firm that specializes in aviation safety. Thanks to the Pentagon, the wilds of Asia and the Middle East are better mapped, too.

“We have this amazing map of Afghanistan. It’s the most modern geological map ever made,” said Kevin Gallagher, associate director for USGS Core Science Systems. “I would love to invest in America like this.”

Now, Gallagher is getting the chance. The USGS, along with numerous state and federal partners, has launched the 3D Elevation Program, an effort to chart all 50 states with airborne lasers (lidar) or radar (ifsar). The new technology permits astonishingly precise measurements of terrain, buildings and roads, waterways, coastline, even vegetation, right down to individual plants.

“It’s not an image; it’s data. That’s what makes it so powerful,” Gallagher said. “Lidar is like looking at the world through a new set of glasses.”

The technology is transforming archaeology and geology, revealing lost cities in the jungles of Cambodia and Belize and new fault lines under the streets of Seattle. It has guided rescuers after the Oso, Wash., landslide; gauged flood risk in North Carolina; and helped residents decide whether to install solar panels on Manhattan rooftops.

Lidar also has countless commercial applications. A 2012 report on the benefits of better elevation data drew support from Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Co. (precision agriculture), the Mendocino Redwood Co. (timber inventory and landslide avoidance), TomTom (vehicle guidance) and an array of energy firms (windmills, solar farms and oil-well siting).

Gallagher predicts the 3-D program will be as “transformational” to the U.S. economy as the original Army Corps surveys that fueled the Westward expansion in the 1800s. For about $150 million a year, the USGS estimates the new maps could boost government savings and private investment by as much as $13 billion annually.

Because Alaska is so badly mapped, the project kicked off there in the summer of 2010 using ifsar, which is slightly less accurate than lidar but cheaper and able to penetrate clouds. Within months, however, Republicans had won the U.S. House and begun squabbling with President Obama over government spending. The 3-D program has since struggled to gain a toehold in the federal budget as gridlocked policymakers have repeatedly rubber-stamped old spending priorities in quickie budget bills, known as continuing resolutions, or CRs.

The USGS has persevered, cobbling together existing federal funds and money appropriated by desperate Alaska officials. Still, four years later, just half of the state has been mapped and impatient contractors have been flying extra territory on spec in hopes that Congress will finally boost the program’s budget.

“We lobby. I’m sure Fugro lobbies. But as soon as they go to a CR, you’re screwed,” said Ian Wosiski, sales director at Intermap Technologies, which, along with Fugro EarthData, is flying the planes that collect the ifsar data.

“We’re talking about $30 million to finish the state. Thirty million dollars,” Wosiski said. “When you consider all the benefits of the program, it seems like a no-brainer.”
Charting through Alaska
View Photos
The state’s landscape has never been mapped to modern standards, and consequences have been dire for some pilots.

Some argue the project has already paid for itself. A few months after the project’s “skybreaking” at an Anchorage airport, an F-22 Raptor crashed while training in remote territory near Denali National Park. The pilot died on impact, and the plane — by then a $150 million hunk of hazardous material — was submerged in a 20-foot crater in a streambed between two ridges.

It was just before Thanksgiving. The mountains were covered with snow, and the days were short, with six hours of sunlight. As the military readied a 33-person recovery team, Army contractor Mike Davis remembered the skybreaking and called to see whether ifsar had been collected over the crash site.

It had. Fugro rushed the raw data to Anchorage, where Davis used it to plot a course for helicopters to land safely without touching off an avalanche.

A mapping specialist from Colorado State University, Davis had been campaigning for better elevation data for at least four years, since the Army began moving Kiowa helicopters to Fort ­Wainwright outside Fairbanks. Though the Pentagon had aerial images of its vast Alaska training fields, Davis said, they were useless to the Kiowas without accurate information about the lay of the land.

“We realized we had elevation errors in the hundreds of feet in our maps,” Davis said. “And now we’ve got all these guys coming in, expecting to train at night and fly map-of-the-earth-type stuff. And the answer was just no.”

He put together some PowerPoint slides and began lobbying military commanders. “I said: ‘Here’s the level of data they have for terrain in Afghanistan. And here’s the crap we have here,’ ” Davis recalled. “They got the message pretty quickly.”

Davis may have helped prod the Defense Department’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to put $2.3 million toward the first ifsar flights. Steve Wallach, an NGA executive at the time, did not recall mention of the Kiowas. But funding ifsar “probably served multiple training purposes,” he said, adding, “The quality of the existing elevation data was very poor.”

These days, Davis works for HDR, an engineering firm. As the ifsar data has become available, he has been loading it onto iPads for his associates, including a four-person crew assigned this summer to scour a proposed natural gas pipeline corridor for signs of ancient settlements.

Davis has also scouted Devil’s Canyon on the Susitna River, site of a proposed hydroelectric dam. There, the ifsar data will be used to model water flow in a watershed the size of West Virginia. Davis also dreams of using it to fly drones up the canyon so pilots don’t have to risk their lives photographing the area.

Drones “need crazy elevation data,” he said.

Scientsts, meanwhile, are using the data to model tsunami evacuation routes and waiting eagerly for future flights over the state’s active volcanoes. Earlier this month, new data arrived from the Columbia Glacier, causing a stir in the glacier office at the USGS Alaska Science Center in the hills of east Anchorage.

USGS scientist Louis Sass said the new data will permit better measurements of thinning and shrinkage since Alaska glaciers were last mapped in the 1950s, increasing understanding of global warming.

“It’s beautiful data,” Sass said. “You can actually see details in the ice, like where the glacier is calving.” He pointed to several small lumps on the map on his computer screen.

“Those are icebergs,” he said. “You can actually see little icebergs in the ocean.”

Columbia Glacier, in 2004. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Alaskans, of course, have more prosaic problems than melting glaciers and crashing fighter jets. Take, for instance, land rights. How do you lay claim to land that has never been mapped?

“Stuff that is unthinkable in the contiguous U.S. is perfectly normal here,” said Lars Gleitsmann, a geologist and entrepreneur who has testified in mining disputes. “A surveyer draws on a map, then he goes out into Mother Nature using the GPS to locate his place. Nothing matches, nothing fits. Soon, everybody is at each other’s throats.”

Gleitsmann, an expert bush pilot, is also deeply involved in the state’s most urgent ifsar-related project: improving aviation safety.

Alaska pilots are 36 times as likely to die as the average U.S. worker, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state has few roads, so everything and everybody has to travel in small planes capable of landing on remote runways. Alaska has roughly six times as many pilots per capita as the rest of the nation.

And they are usually flying in conditions that are inherently dangerous. The weather is brutal and hard to predict. The rugged and badly mapped terrain leads to a particularly deadly kind of crash called “controlled flight into terrain,” which in Alaska means the pilot has flown a perfectly good plane at full speed into the side of a mountain.

Since 2008, 15 such crashes have killed 16 people and left seven seriously injured in Alaska, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Among them was the crash that killed former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in 2010.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R), a longtime champion of better mapping, said he has lost 25 friends in plane crashes — and he feared for his own life during a 2012 flight through the Alaska Range via Rainy Pass, one of the state’s deadly mountain passes.

“There was a crucial four or five minutes where we didn’t know where we were,” Treadwell said. “Then we landed at the Rainy Pass Lodge, somebody handed me a cold beer and made me a hamburger, and it was wonderful.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has worked since 2000 to improve flight safety with training programs and new technology. But Colligan, of E-Terra, said he had to warn the FAA against trying to produce an in-cockpit map system using the old terrain maps.

“I told them, this is not the same as the lower 48. You’ll kill people here,” he said.

With ifsar, such a map is finally possible. NASA recently released to Alaska officials a prototype of a navigation app that will deliver 3-D terrain maps — as well as real-time weather forecasts — into the cockpit for testing as soon as next year. E-Terra, meanwhile, is developing a hyper-realistic 3-D map that would let socked-in pilots virtually brush the clouds away.

Both projects need more terrain data, however. “GPS is no good if it only covers four blocks downtown,” Colligan said.

So Gleitsmann has been flying the mountains with a camera, documenting the power of ifsar in hopes of helping the state shake loose more federal cash. Among his targets: Mystic Pass, where Nick Mastrodicasa, the state’s project manager for the digital mapping initiative, remembered two hunters finding themselves in bad weather in a plane full of moose meat in 2006.

“That is probably the worst thing that can happen to any pilot, that situation,” Gleitsmann said. “What they were facing was really, really bad.”

Aric Beane and Alex Stack, shown on the morning they headed home via Mystic Pass from a 2006 moose hunt in Stack’s bush plane, a de Havilland Beaver. Both were killed when the plane crashed into a ridge in bad weather. (Courtesy of James Eule/The Washington Post)

An experienced pilot, Stack had purchased a brand new GPS device just before the hunting trip. Studying his position on its moving map, he steered the plane through the clouds nearly the full length of Mystic Pass. He had one last ridge to clear before the land opens up into a wide, friendly river valley.

Ifsar later measured the final ridge 263 feet higher than Stack’s GPS would have shown that day. The plane slammed into rock about 300 feet below the ridgeline, rescuers said — close enough to suggest the bad map may have made a difference.

Stack, 38, and Beane, 33, died on impact, leaving behind three small children.

Eule, meanwhile, was flying west, looking for a safe path through the mountains. Low on fuel, he landed at a remote hunting lodge where the wary female caretaker wanted “to make me sleep in the plane.”

He used a satellite phone to call his wife, who checked Stack’s parking spot on the Web cam at the Anchorage airport. She reported his plane missing around 4 a.m. Two days later, the Alaska Air National Guard found the wreckage. The fuselage was incinerated, and rescuers found no trace of the GPS on which Stack had pinned his hopes.

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