In 2015, the Wapichan peoples of Guyana, a small nation on the northern coast of South America, were awarded the Equator Prize from the United Nations Development Program. This prize recognizes and advances local and Indigenous-led sustainable development initiatives aiming to preserve nature and build resilient communities. ​​The Wapichan peoples were honoured for their extensive efforts in securing land titles and conserving rainforests on their ancestral lands. To achieve these efforts, they created maps using satellite technology and traditional knowledge of their environment and the universe – an approach more broadly known as participatory mapping.

What is Participatory Mapping?

Participatory mapping (also known as community mapping) is an umbrella term for all the approaches that combine modern mapping technologies with community engagement. These approaches aim to visually represent how a community identifies its physical environment and its key spatial dimensions. The underlying idea of participatory mapping is that local communities hold accurate and intimate knowledge of their lands and environments and that this knowledge should be important to conserving resources and helping the environment. 

The rising prominence of participatory mapping is significant for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that cartography – the practice of creating maps – was and continues to be used by colonial empires as an instrument of power and division. Not only were maps central to the “voyages of discovery” that marked the beginning of colonialism, but they were also used to claim and defend colonial titles over land. Since map-making and governance were intimately connected in the context of “empire,” unmapped spaces were believed to be ungoverned by colonizers. Although there were existing governments on these lands that were based on traditional knowledge, the belief that unmapped spaces were ungoverned was upheld by colonial forces. 

Unlike conventional cartography, participatory mapping turns the colonial foundation of cartography on its head by using a medium that has been used to marginalize traditional lands, governance, and knowledge to reassert their power. It does so by allowing marginalized communities to represent themselves by bringing local knowledge and perspectives to the attention of authorities and decision-makers. Today, state control over these lands is often strengthened by extractive industries; so, these maps can shed light on the environmental harm caused by industrial activity. 

Land Precarity and Industrial Incursions in Guyana 

Indigenous peoples in Guyana experience one of the most precarious land tenure situations in South America. Despite official recommendations and promises made by the government for the provision of land titles, less than 4% of the country’s land is under the stewardship of Indigenous peoples. A majority of Indigenous communities in the country have insecure land titles that only cover small fractions of their lands and can be revoked by the state at any time.

Mining and wood concessions have been granted on untitled areas without governmental consultation with Indigenous peoples by the. Titled territories have also been vulnerable to industrial activity. Since the amount of land under state control vastly exceeds the amount of land titled to Indigenous peoples, extractive industries have encroached on these lands. The lack of recognition given to Indigenous land rights by the Guyanese state is also in violation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which Guyana approved in 1997, and international human rights standards that guarantee Indigenous peoples’ rights to own, manage and control their traditional lands. 

The Wapichan peoples, who reside primarily in the South Rupununi savannahs of Guyana, had been pushing for full legal recognition of their ancestral lands even before Guyana gained independence from Britain in 1966. They have made multiple attempts to gain land rights, including petitions to the Amerindian Lands Commission, a body set up by the British to settle questions of land. However, only 15% of Wapichan traditional land has been titled. The lack of secure titles exposes Wapichan lands and peoples to the threats of mining, logging, mega road projects, and commercial agribusiness development. 

First map of British Guiana (Guyana) created in 1832, source: https://www.britishempire.co.uk/

Reclaiming Land through Participatory Mapping Projects

A combination of complicated legal conditions, industrial incursions, and the government’s repeated insistence to provide proof of continued customary land practices to justify title claims led to the initiation of participatory mapping projects in the region in 2000. The mapping of the South Rupununi was part of a broader scheme led by participating grassroots and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the region, such as the South Central People’s Development Association, South and South Central Rupununi District Councils, and the Amerindian Peoples Association. International NGOs, like the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), provided training to Indigenous mappers to use Geographic Information System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies to draw territorial maps on the use and care of lands in the region. By 2011, FPP had supported 17 Wapichan communities in drawing up maps.

Wapichan participatory projects received another boost in 2013. The South Central People’s Development Association accrued financial and technical support from Digital Democracy to set up a community-based forest and land monitoring system. This initiative uses real-time satellite analysis to alert community authorities of any harmful industrial activities by looking at changes in forest cover, water quality, and land use in the territory. Digital Democracy provided training to Wapichan youth to use smartphone technology that links satellite data and the Wapichan map to monitor the lands for any territorial encroachments by industry. This is significant because it ensures that young people are involved in sustaining and transmitting traditional knowledge of the lands and creates sustainable jobs for the youth. 

Monitoring is further facilitated by a community-built and operated drone. The mapping and monitoring units have also been used to print maps to support ongoing land negotiations with government and industry. Using these technologies and traditional ecological knowledge, Wapichan communities successfully drew a plan to conserve 1.4 million hectares of pristine rainforest. In other words, the use of drones and mapping is empowering Wapichan people to manage their own land and make their own decisions about their territories. Since they can document, monitor, and protect their territories, they can push back against the state or outside agencies’ decisions about their lands. 

Elders and Wapichan community members have played an important role in these projects. Daniel Kinchin, the leader of the Wapichan peoples, rode his bicycle to many villages in the Rupununi to sketch maps with elders, community leaders, and members. The elders guided the mapping trips, where they traveled along mountains, rivers, and traditional trails. The community mappers carefully hand-recorded spatial features that the Wapichan considered important, with references made to GPS data to produce accurate and detailed maps. Through participatory mapping techniques, traditional ways of life are being preserved and carried forward. 

The Importance of Indigenous-Led and Indigenous-Owned Conservation

For the Wapichan peoples to receive the Equator Prize in 2015 is hugely significant, even seven years later. As Nicholas Fredericks, leader of the Shulinab village and project coordinator with the South Central People’s Development Association, has noted

So often the work of Indigenous peoples is invisible. Governments and world leaders. . . need to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ contributions. They must make commitments to legally recognize our lands as part of global and national strategies for respecting our rights and mitigating climate change.” 

Their work has inspired similar projects in other contexts of land precariousness, such as the Ecuadorian Amazon

Still, there is much work to be done on the question of land title and conservation. Despite the fact that the Wapichan have crafted maps that clearly demonstrate their knowledge of their ancestral lands to the Guyanese government, gold mining concessions continue to be handed out. The government’s continued granting of concessions shows that the state is unwilling to recognize Indigenous land titles, and is a major obstacle to the Wapichan peoples’ goal of protecting 2.8 million hectares of ancestral land in the Rupununi savannahs and the Upper Essequibo basin. 

Funding for these projects is also contentious. While billions of dollars have been pledged towards Indigenous land tenure and forest management initiatives, little funds were given to Indigenous-led, owned, and/or managed projects. According to the Rainforest Foundation Norway, international NGOs, regional banks, government institutions, or UN agencies get a whopping 83 percent of financing for Indigenous conservation. The Wapichan peoples have been impacted by this disproportionate system of funding; despite the groundbreaking data being collected through mapping, they lack a proper way to store this data. 

Additionally, most discussions on how funds for Indigenous-led projects are to be allocated do not involve Indigenous peoples. The fact that so much of this funding goes to governments with detrimental track records of affirming Indigenous rights should greatly concern the international community. Putting more money into Indigenous-led initiatives and clarifying who receives it is crucial to optimize and expand these projects, as well as build trust between governments and Indigenous communities.

Edited by Beth Samson

Vaishnavi Panchanadam

Vaishnavi is from Ottawa and was raised between Ottawa and Bangalore (India) before moving to Vancouver 3 years ago. She is currently a fourth-year student in the honours political science program at UBC,...