Map shows Indigenous peoples as guardians of Central American ecosystems

Funded by the Danish government and National Geographic Society, Indigenous groups and governments join IUCN to map stunning ecosystems under care of Indigenous Peoples

El mapa ha permitido que grupos indígenas y gobiernos de la región se unan a la UICN para mapear ecosistemas impresionantes bajo el resguardo de los Pueblos Indígenas.

Indigenous Peoples occupy vast swaths of Central America, including more than half the region’s forests and many of its waterways - making them critical guardians of the region’s most fragile ecosystems, according to a groundbreaking new map produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest environmental organization. The map was released today at a side event during the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, being held at U.N. headquarters in New York through May 20.

The map is the most comprehensive ever produced of the area that is home to 80 different Indigenous Peoples in the seven nations of Central America–occupying almost 40 percent of the land and water area of the isthmus.

At approximately 282,000 square kilometers, the area covered is more than five times the size of Costa Rica. More than one third of the land occupied by Indigenous Peoples covers land and waters that governments in the region have designated as protected.

“You cannot talk about conservation without speaking of Indigenous Peoples and their role as the guardians of our most delicate lands and waters,” said Grethel Aguilar, Regional Director of the IUCN Office for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, based in Costa Rica. “This map shows that where Indigenous People live, you will find the best preserved natural resources. They depend on those natural resources to survive, and the rest of society depends on their role in safeguarding those resources for the well-being of us all.”

Drawing on previously untapped Indigenous knowledge, the map, "Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas and Natural Ecosystems in Central America," details bodies of water and topographical elements overlooked by prior geographical surveys. Older maps have relied on satellite images alone, which were unable to pierce forest canopy or probe marine ecosystems. In contrast to these older maps, the new map includes the locations of Indigenous communities throughout the region.

The new map is also the most comprehensive ever produced of the region’s marine ecosystems, depicting in stunningly rich detail the coral reefs, turtle nesting grounds and manatee habitats of the two oceans that flank the isthmus. The map shows the extent to which Indigenous Peoples manage marine areas. At more than 80,187 square kilometers, if contiguous, they would cover an area greater than the landmass of Panama.

With findings in both Spanish and English, and with comprehensive charts detailing the names, populations and locations of Indigenous Peoples throughout the region, the map is designed to bring attention to the potential benefit of building alliances among conservationists, governments and Indigenous Peoples of Central America. The goals of its creators are ambitious: to strengthen the evidence-base for a rights-based approach to conservation, ensuring not only sustainable use of biodiversity and resources, but also respect for the tenure rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"The map is an instrument that allows Indigenous Peoples to advance the recognition, respect and promotion of their rights", said Ramiro Batzin, Sotz'il Association representative and member of the Central American Indigenous Council (CICA). “It will serve us as a valuable tool for advocating for a greater role for Indigenous Peoples in natural resource conservation, and for opening up a dialogue with states and conservation organizations.”

Highly trained regional professionals from different disciplines and backgrounds took part in the project that lasted more than two years. Among them were Indigenous researchers – cartographers, social scientists, environmental scientists and technicians – who played an unprecedented role in the design and production of the map, making history in modern cartography.

“This is a map where the Indigenous areas are mapped by Indigenous people, who filled it with elements of interest to them. They literally put themselves on the map,” said Mac Chapin, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The driving force behind the original mapping effort, carried out 14 years ago under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, Chapin served as a technical advisor to the team of Central American professionals who jointly produced the new map.

To produce the map, the cartographers engaged with approximately 3,500 Indigenous people, who participated in more than 130 mapping workshops across the region. The map updates efforts to define the Indigenous use of land, as well as their occupation of forests and waterways. This process began in 1992, and has bolstered a growing awareness of land rights among Indigenous Peoples of the region.

“The map has been built from the communities, and it now has legitimacy because they have been the ones to say, ‘here we are; this is happening in our communities’”, said Jesús Amadeo Martínez, President of the Central American Indigenous Council (CICA). “The main value of this map is that Indigenous Peoples, organizations and communities will have a support tool for confronting processes such as land titling to Indigenous territories and recognition of Indigenous Peoples that are taking place in Central America."

The IUCN’s Aguilar suggested the map might serve as the basis of new and productive dialogues between Indigenous Peoples, governments, environmental groups and private interests, who face extraordinary challenges in the years ahead in balancing economic development with the conservation of natural resources. “The indigenous maps mark the history of people, and for that reason it is critical to depict things as they actually are,” Aguilar said. “It puts the information in plain view, information that can start a discussion of very difficult issues, and permits us to take actions based on reality.”

Funded by more than $700,000 in grants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the Ford Foundation and the National Geographic Society, among others, the new map was produced by IUCN using state-of-the-art satellite imaging techniques and with unprecedented levels of participation by Indigenous Peoples. The map also incorporates critical data on forest cover and the boundaries of protected areas supplied by Central American governments, which cooperated in the development of the map.

Jose Antonio Galdames, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment and Mining (MiAmbiente+) of the Government of Honduras, and President Pro Tempore of the Central American Commission on Environment and Development (CCAD, in Spanish), called the map an essential tool for promoting synergies between Indigenous Peoples and the forests, marine and coastal areas, on one hand, and the Central American governments that contributed to the building of the map.

“Much of Central America is occupied by Indigenous Peoples, which is why we clearly advocate the need for our governments to expand opportunities to strengthen strategic alliances with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in our efforts to address the conservation and use of biodiversity, and the protection and management of forest, coastal and marine resources.

“I am pleased to say that the Honduran government is supporting indigenous organizations by creating opportunities for participation through the platforms of governance to guarantee their rights, notably in recognizing their land rights. Let this be an opportunity also to make progress toward the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples, offering ways to improve good governance and to achieve the long-term conservation of natural resource and protected areas in Central America,” Galdames added.

The new map identifies 948 recognized terrestrial and marine protected areas in Central America. In fact, 39 percent of those areas - some 96,432 square kilometers - are also home to Indigenous Peoples. And 44 percent of Central American forests are located inside areas inhabited and used by Indigenous Peoples. Much of this land still contains intact ecosystems that are under intense pressure due to unsustainable economic models.

Research has shown a correlation between support for Indigenous Peoples to maintain their way of life and preserving the biodiversity of sensitive areas. Community forest rights that are legally recognized and protected by governments often translate into reduced deforestation and lower emissions of carbon dioxide.

The maps being released this month have their genesis in a series of efforts first initiated 24 years ago by Chapin, an anthropologist. At that time, the governments of the region had little knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples and gave few of them any formal recognition.

Working first with no budget and under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, in 1992 Chapin enlisted the support of a team of dedicated geographers, anthropologists, and biologists to produce a map titled “The Co-existence of Indigenous Peoples and the Natural Environment in Central America.” It was the first bilingual map in Spanish and English that National Geographic Society had ever made.

Since then, advances in satellite imagery and mapping technology have revolutionized cartography, making possible a new level of detail and accuracy. But those advances pale next to the revolution in interest in their lands that has developed among the Indigenous Peoples of Central America. “The new map reflects the region’s Indigenous Peoples’ vision of the world,” Chapin said, “while the modern cartographic technologies provide clear evidence that their presence can help ensure the conservation of ecosystems that are vital to reducing carbon emissions and supporting sustainable development.”

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