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    A Landmark Project Reveals A Remarkable Correspondence between
          Indigenous Land Use and the Survival of Natural Areas.

                                             by Ed Ayres

    Maps may be famously variable in accuracy, but generally speaking they are no more "ob-
jective" than are movies, novels, speeches, or paintings. Even if painstakingly accurate, they
heavily reflect the interests of                  those who paid to have them made. Those inter-
ests may be political, commer-                     cial, or scientific. In the second half of the twen-
tieth century, world maps                          emphasized the preoccupations of the Cold War,
with a primary em-                               phasis on international borders. The globes we had
in our classrooms                              showed a world made up of nations. Until recently,
most maps showed                                        very little of what some of us now believe to
be critical to the fu-                                        ture of life: the boundaries of biore-
gions, watersheds,                                              forests, ice caps, and biodiversit hot-
spots - and the                                                 principal ocean currents, wind cur-
rents, oceanic fish-                                           eries, and migratory flyways. In one of
the offices at Worldwatch,                                     there's a large map of North America
showing nothing but the distribution of                        underground water. In World Watch,
over the years, we've published maps of the                                       global distribution of
infectious diseases, war, slavery, refugee                                          flows, and electric
light as seen from space. The advancing tech-                                        nologies of Geo-
graphic Information Systems (GIS), combining the                                     use of satellite im-
aging and digital data, have made these tasks easier by re-                       placing laborious car-
tographic handwork with a capacity to superimpose maps of various elements showing how
these elements may be related.
     The fold-out map on the following pages is a product of one of the most remarkable map-
making efforts of recent times. It is a simplified version of a monumental map created under the
direction of a nonprofit group called the Center for the Support of Native Lands, and produced in
its final form by the National Geographic Society. It was designed to exhibit two main catego-
ries of information: the distribution of cultural diversity in Central America and southern Mex-
ico, and the distribution of forest and marine resources in that region. By superimposing these
sets of information in detail, the map strongly confirms a hypothesis that has long been familiar
to environmentalists and anthropologists alike: that there is a significant correlation of some kind

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                         March/April 2003
between cultural diversity and biological diversity. That may seem obvious, as the homogeniz-
ing impacts of globalization are fueled and further exacerbated by a stripping of forests for cat-
tleranching, plantations, and urban development. But in the past, the kind of data available to
demonstrate this correlation on a regional or global basis has been fairly broad-brush. In 1992,
for example, Worldwatch published a paper by Alan Durning, Guardians of the Land: Indigenous
Peoples and the Health of the Earth, which included a diagram showing which nations had the
highest cultural diversity (defined as those in which more than 200 languages are spoken) and
which had the highest biological diversity (those with the highest numbers of unique species).
Of the nine countries with the highest cultural diversity, six also ranked among those with the
highest numbers of endemic species.
    The history of Native Land's map of Central America and southern Mexico can be traced
back even further, to the publication of the book Regions of Refuge, by the Mexican anthropolo-
gist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, in 1967. Aguirre Beltran noted that beginning with the Spanish
conquest of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, indigenous peoples who had been decimated
by warfare and by diseases against which they had no resistance sought refuge in "particularly
hostile landscapes or areas of difficult access to human circulation." It was in those remote, of-
ten mountainous or jungle-covered areas that the refugees were able to rcbuild their societies and
preserve their cultures - and it is in those areas that they survive today.

                                                         LIFE ON THE COAST (detail from right-
                                                         center of fold-out map on following pages):
                                                         When a map of indigenous territories (out-
                                                         lined areas) is superimposed on a map of
                                                         forest cover (darker areas), the correspon-
                                                         dence is close-as seen in this section of the
                                                         Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. One reason
                                                         for this correspondence is historic; the native
                                                         groups retreated to densely forested areas
                                                         centuries ago to avoid extermination by con-
                                                         quistadors. Another reason may be ecologi-
                                                         cal, as the Indians' subsistence economy has
                                                         proved less destructive to natural resources
                                                         than has the "developed" economy. The eco-
                                                         logical interdependence of forests and waters
                                                         (estuaries delivering nutrients to the water,
                                                         coastal land providing marine turtle nesting
                                                         sites, etc.) is reflected in the mapping of in-
                                                         digenous territory, which is as much marine
                                                         as terrestrial.

    In 1991, anthropologist Mac Chapin, who was then working for thc Central America program
of Cultural Survival, found himself perusing a map entitled "Indians of Central America 1980s,"
which had been compiled by the Louisiana State University Department of Geography and An-
thropology two years earlier. He noticed that the indigenous population was located primarily in
two areas - in highland Guatemala and strung out like a chain of beads along the Caribbean

World Watch 
                         March/April 2003
coast. "As I took this in," Chapin recalls, "I periodically looked at a 1986 National Geographic
map of Central America hanging on the wall before me. " The primary display was a standard
"political" map, but in the corner was a small inset map showing, somewhat crudely, the region's
vegetation. According to this map, most of Central America's natural forest Cover was to be
found hugging the Caribbean side of the isthmus - precisely where the lowlands indigenous peo-
ples lived.
    Chapin began thinking about the possibility of making a map showing the correspondence of
indigenous settlement and forest cover, and shortly thereafter he was invited by Anthony de
Souza, editor of the National Geographic journal Research & Exploration, to make one. The
map - a precursor to the one which appears here - was published in that journal in 1992. It had
small circulation but huge impact. Copies ended up on walls at the Inter-American Development
Bank, World Bank, UN Food and Agricultural Organization, and the private residence of the
president of Guatemala. One of the strongest impacts was on the indigenous peoples of the re-
gion. "The map helped to strengthen what soon became, a widespread campaign for protecting
and legalizing their territories," says Chapin.

                                    NATIONAL POLICIES, as well as cultural practices, can make a
                                    large difference in protection of natural assets. In this view (detail
                                    from northwestern section offold-out map), the border between
                                    Mexico and Guatemala demarcates a stark contrast between the
                                    land Mexico has allowed to be cleared for cattle grazing or timber,
                                    and the intact forest which remains across the border to the south
                                    and east.

    That campaign also opened up a new venture for Native Lands - helping indigenous groups
document their own land-use and marine-use patterns for purposes of fending off incursions by
developers, squatters, loggers, and the like. Traditionally, most of the native communities had
regarded their territories as commons, and had never seen any need for such documents as plats
and deeds; but the lack of such “proof” of ownership meant they were often unable to defend
their territories from being occupied or exploited by outsiders. Chapin and his colleagues, who
by 1994 had left Cultural Survival to form Native Lands, embarked on a series of "participatory
mapping" projects, in which indigenous groups made hand-drawn maps of their ancestral lands,
and these maps were then combined with inputs from aerial photograph interpreters and cartog-
raphers to produce highly detailed, small-scale maps of the tribal territories. (One of the hand-
drawn maps was published on the back cover of the January/February 1994 World Watch.) The
progress of the participatory mapping program is summarized in a book coauthored by Chapin
and his colleague Bill Threlkeld, Indigenous Landscapes: A Study in Ethnocartography, pub-
lished in 2001. In 2000, Native Lands decided to do an update of the original Central America
map. "We knew that deforestation had advanced and that problems with Central America's Car-

World Watch 
                          March/April 2003
ibbean coastal environment-the bleaching of coral reefs and decline in fisheries-were increas-
ing." Several heavily financed conservation projects had failed to halt the destruction. (The
Mesoamerican Biological Corridor program of the World Bank had spent close to $100 million
in the 1990s, and accordingto several assessments had little to show for it.)
    It was also possible, by 2000, to make a far more accurate and informative map than the
original. There had been major advances in satellite technology, and the success of the first ver-
sion mobilized greater financial and professional resources. The original map had not included
features of marine ecosystems, and had shown indigenous territories only on land. The new one
would show marine-use areas, which are of critical importance to indigenous peoples along the
Caribbean coast. The new map would also include the Maya region of southern Mexico, which
the first map had not. The project would integrate the work of indigenous representatives, an-
thropologists, ecologists, and cartographers from every country from Mexico to Panama. Data-
gathering took 15 months. The map was then designed by National Geographic Maps, the carto-
graphic division of the National Geographic Society, and printed in an oversized (44 x 27-inch)
format. The total cost, including data-gathering, design, and production, came to about
$400,000. The map was printed with Spanish and English text and published as an insert to the
February 2003 issue of the Latin American edition of National Geographic magazine, National
Geographic en Espanol, with about 130,000 copies to be distributed in Central America and


World Watch 
                       March/April 2003
   From the Map:
    The first human footprints appeared along the isthmus that is today Cental America and
southern Mexico as early as 18,000 years ago. They were made by small bands of hunters and
gatherers moving south through pristine landscapes abundant with plant and animal life. The
newcomers prospered. They put down roots and spread ouut, adapting themselves to the region’s
varied ecosystems. When the Europeans arrived at the end of the 15th century, the native popu-
lation was an estimated 7,680,000 people who spoke at least 62 languagues and had cultural con-
figurations ranging from tiny foraging tribes to the complex civilizations of the Maya.
    Contact proved disastrous for the indigenous peoples. As many as 90 percent of them died
within the first 100 years, mainly from diseases against which they had no resistance. Most of
those who survived retreated into the hinterlands to escape the unseen pestilence, holding out in
the remote fastness of the northern highlands and the humid forests of the Caribbean coastal
slope. Indigenous peoples still have a strong presence in these areas today. Their numbers have
steadily increased and now surpass pre-Hispanic levels, with some 11 million people arrayed
among more than 60 ethnic/linguistic groups. They are currently mounting campaigns to protect
their ancestral homelands, natural resources, and distinctive cultures.


     In 1900, Central America and southern Mexico were densely forested. In the mid- to late
1940’s, however, the region's population began to expand rapidly. New technologies made pos-
sible the construction of road networks into outlying areas, and timber extraction and land clear-
ing increased exponentially. Simultaneously, advances in public health made settlement in the
humid lowlands not only feasible but also attractive. The following decades saw unprecedented
change. The region's population reached 40 million by 1990 and land-hungry peasants began
moving into "uninhabited" frontier areas - which in fact were often inhabited by indigenous peo-
ples. Loggers and cattle ranchers followed, and between 1945 and 1990 as much as two-thirds of
the original natural vegetation was destroyed. Today, deforestation continues to advance and the
ecological health of the region is threatened as never before: weather patterns are more erratic,
natural disasters are more frequent and severe, and silt and chemical runoff in rivers are asphyxi-
ating marine ecosystems offshore. Forests are becoming increasingly fragmented and animal
habitats are disappearing. The root causes of this devastation are both tenacious and numerous.
They include social injustice, widespread poverty, an unequal distribution of resources, ineffi-
cient economies, and overpopulation. Until these are confronted and dealt with, there will be
little relief for the region's beleaguered forests.

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