Maps Demarcating Central America’s Indigenous Territories Reveal Correlation Between Native Lands and Standing Forests

Explorers and cartographers have elaborated thousands of maps of Mexico and Central America over the centuries, but few have bothered to demarcate the boundaries of the lands or identify the communities populated by the region’s original inhabitants. In February, a collaboration among the Center for Native Lands in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Society, indigenous organizations and researchers, resulted in publication of a revealing map that should be a powerful tool not only to the cause of indigenous rights but also to biodiversity conservation.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')
The map pinpoints locations of indigenous communities whose names never appear on conventional maps, such as the Nahoa and Texiguat in Honduras and the Matagalpa, Nahua, Sutiaba, Nicarao and Chorotega, who live on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. Further, the map shows the distribution of forest and marine resources in the region, extending from southern Mexico south through Panama. Superimposing the natural resource map over the location of indigenous lands makes clear what conservationists have long known: there is a strong correlation between indigenous territories and areas of high biodiversity.

According to Amílcar Castañeda, field coordinator for the Center for Native Lands, a program of the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., one of the map’s principal objectives is to formally recognize the region’s indigenous people and help them gain legal title to their lands. “The indigenous do not have access to public participation,” he says. “There is no specific policy with regard to their territories, and if there is, it is something that’s imposed, not derived from their actual needs.”

The map, printed in the February National Geographic edition for Central America and Mexico, as well as in the magazine WorldWatch, is a more comprehensive follow-up to a precursor published in 1992. Research for the new map was not impeded by lack of access to indigenous communities, much more problematic during the years of civil unrest throughout much of Central America and southern Mexico in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

For the 2003 map, a group that included indigenous researchers in each of the eight countries gathered geographic, biological, and cultural information not only for the regional map but also for eight national maps, which will be published later this year and provide even more detail. The information presented on the national maps is based on consultations with experts in different fields, from a variety of institutions and national and regional nongovernmental organizations, fishermen and indigenous community leaders.

Castañeda emphasizes that in the indigenous communities, researchers found a tremendous desire to collaborate, what he calls: “The need to be visible.”

Geographer Luis Tenorio served as team leader in Costa Rica for the map project and also helped elaborate the 1992 map. He points out that the new map is the first that depicts indigenous traditional uses of marine resources from southern Mexico to Panama. He says it’s also the first map developed together with the indigenous people of the region and for that reason, it “shows their vision and reality, including the names of their villages in their own languages.”

Tenorio notes that in spite of the fact that there is a clear correlation between indigenous populations and forest cover throughout Mesoamerica, directors of biodiversity conservation initiatives and resource development projects seldom bother to consult with indigenous people. “Many times megaprojects like hydroelectric plants, mines, road construction and oil pipelines impinge on indigenous territories without taking into account the residents of that land,” he says.

The problem is aggravated, he says, because so many indigenous groups live on land not recognized as theirs by governments, or they migrate from one country to another, continuing a centuries-old practice that never heeded borders established by Spanish colonists. For example, the Miskitos of Nicaragua customarily migrate to Costa Rica.

Tenorio believes that the maps will help indigenous communities “have a better understanding of what they possess, to use these resources wisely and participate in decision-making.”

Much of the information for the new map came from satellite imagery, which makes it possible to determine which areas in Mesoamerica are at the greatest risk from deforestation and then to link different categories of information, like forested areas with economically impoverished regions with the location of indigenous communities. Compiling and correlating all this data will help define judicious policies for the future of these areas. “There is no more agricultural frontier,” Castañeda maintains. “What is left are protected areas and indigenous territories.”

Next on the mapping agenda for Native Lands coordinators for Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador is development of a Maya Map, also in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, which will show forest cover, indigenous areas, marine ecosystems and major archeological sites in the five countries.

According to Native Lands, in the last decade the majority of indigenous people in Mesoamerica – who make up some 23 percent of the region’s population — have formed organizations and mounted campaigns to press governments for legal titles to their territories. While they struggle to survive in countries that long have marginalized them, Mesoamerica’s more than 60 different indigenous groups can now wield new maps to help them claim stewardship over natural resources that are as endangered as their own cultures and traditions.

— Katiana Murillo

Contacts in Costa Rica:

Amílcar Castañeda
Tierras Nativas
Apdo 50-2400
San José
tel 506/250-2596
fax 506/219-7483

Luis Tenorio
tel 506/241-3967

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:


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