Courtesy IUCN Regional Office for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, 2016
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This map produced in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature highlights the interrelationship between indigenous populations in Central America and the region’s natural ecosystems.
Courtesy IUCN Regional Office for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, 2016

How mapmakers help indigenous people defend their lands

With help from cartographers, native peoples’ hand-drawn maps of their own territory become a tool against exploitation.

After the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Spain and the other powers of Europe quickly began surveying and mapping the New World.

The boundary lines they drew reflected their own imperial ambitions and rivalries, with little regard for the indigenous people who lived there already. “As much as guns and warships, maps have been the weapons of imperialism,” wrote geographer J.B. Harley.

Maps are still used today by governments and large companies to stake a claim to lands and resources, often at the expense of indigenous populations, says Mac Chapin, an anthropologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Center for the Support of Native Lands. The group has been helping indigenous people map their territories since the 1980s. Indigenous groups have used those maps to seek protected status for their lands and to fight unwanted exploitation of their natural resources by oil, timber, and other companies.


One early project in the 1990s focused on the remote Darién region of Panama. Official maps of the area contained little detail—the persistent cloud cover and dense rainforest canopy were impenetrable to the satellite imagery and aerial photos that government cartographers used to make their maps. But to the three main indigenous groups in the region, Emberá, the Wounaan, and the Guna, the land was filled with landmarks.

“They have names for the rivers, and mountains, and the reef systems in the ocean,” Chapin says. “But nobody had ever asked them to put this on a map.”

The organization’s approach was simple: ask indigenous people to draw detailed maps of their lands, and then get professional cartographers to incorporate this information into modern, geographically accurate maps.

To map the Darién, indigenous leaders selected men from communities in the region to act as surveyors. The surveyors then set out by bus, by canoe, or on foot, armed with pencils, pens, and blank sheets of manila paper to sketch the local waterways and other landmarks. In collaboration with villagers and their leaders they carefully drew maps that included things of importance to their communities that wouldn’t typically appear on government maps, like hunting and fishing grounds, or places where firewood, fruit, or medicine were gathered. They often chose to leave out cemeteries and sacred sites, preferring to keep that knowledge within their communities. The quality of these maps varies considerably, but the best of them are works of art, Chapin says (see below).

Cartographers from the University of Panama and the country’s national geographical institute, the Instituto Geográfico Nacional, took these hand-drawn maps and combined them with topographic maps, information from official government sources, and aerial photos to produce what was the most detailed and accurate map then available of the Darién.


The Darién project was one piece of a much larger initiative. Chapin and his team have worked to detail the territories of indigenous groups living throughout Central America (the National Geographic Society has funded some of this work). The latest map, covering more than 60 territories, was released in 2016 in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Roughly 3500 indigenous people participated in more than 130 mapping workshops to create it.

The 2016 map reveals remarkable overlap between indigenous populations and the best-preserved forests and marine areas remaining in Central America, says Grethel Aguilar, director of the IUCN regional office in San Jose, Costa Rica. To Aguilar, that’s a clear sign that any strategy for preserving these natural environments must take indigenous groups into consideration. “If we do not work with indigenous people and protect their rights, it’s very unlikely the region will achieve its conservation targets,” she says.

Since 2016, Aguilar says, the map, as well as more detailed digital maps produced by the IUCN, have been used by indigenous groups in Central America to lobby for recognition and legal protections from their local and national governments, and to push back against companies pursuing concessions to mine or build hydropower dams on their lands.

When Chapin, Aguilar and others presented the map at a meeting of the United Nations in 2016, a number of indigenous leaders were in attendance. “One of the big Guna chiefs pulled me aside and said, ‘Thank you for making us visible,’” Chapin says. “That really touched me.”

Greg Miller and Betsy Mason are authors of the forthcoming illustrated book from National Geographic, All Over the Map. Follow the blog on Twitter and Instagram.