Maps with a purpose

“Maps are like campfires — everyone gathers around them, because they allow people to understand complex issues at a glance, and find agreement about how to help the land.”― Sonoma Ecology Center


Hand-drawn community map of the Maje Embera territory (10m X 2m). This beautiful map, drawn by the Maje Embera community in the course of three weeks, represents how their territory looked before illegal settlers started moving into their territory. More than just a spatial representation, maps can become a way of expression for indigenous communities, a way of giving a voice to an invisible past.

There is much power in maps. Maps have the ability to answer any question with a "where" in them. Maps are especially important since they directly affect our perception of our space. How would we know how our home country looks like if it wasn't for Google Maps? 

Since maps affect our knowledge and how we view reality, they have immense potential and are powerful tools for change. Change is why I try to do bring with maps. Although I can only show a few at the moment, please feel free to explore the maps I have done, highlighting deforestation in remote places or the importance of indigenous knowledge

Uncharted and unidentified maps in indigenous reserves within the Amazon Rainforest

  • The Amazon rainforest is a unique ecosystem. It holds more biodiversity than any other ecosystem on Earth while also greatly influencing the planet's climate. Despite its evident importance, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is now everyday news to most of us. Although several NGOs have been engaged in the development of projects to protect this ecosystem, project implementation in the Amazon is often spatially limited since there are no roads, streets, addresses, and/or reliable landmarks in general. 

  • Although addresses are lacking, rivers and bodies of water, on the other hand, are aplenty and have been traditionally used by the indigenous communities of the area to guide themselves. However, 97 % of all the small river tributaries within indigenous territories in the Amazon region are not named on GIS platforms. Although some of these can be seen on several platforms like Google Maps and national hydrographic maps, most of them are still unnamed.

  • Working on naming and digitizing these bodies of water is vital for mainly two reasons: On the one hand, necessary environmental and political projects such as illegal deforestation control and illicit mining mitigation require precise spatial information to be executed. By naming these tributaries, we can provide valuable spatial information for these projects’ development, especially considering that most of these illegal activities are frequently located close to streams since it facilitates the transport of lumber and/or mining products.

  • On the other hand, by finally naming and publishing indigenous river names on freely accessible platforms, there is a revindication of the indigenous communities' knowledge and history. Anthropologically speaking, by naming these rivers, there is an acknowledgment of these tributaries as different from the vast and uncharted "Amazon wilderness" while also recognizing them as critical cultural sites of economic and social importance. 

  •  Please feel free to explore the map below, based on indigenous maps available in the book:"La Maloca y el Territorio". This map shows newly identified rivers within the "Predio Putumayo" Indigenous reserve, the biggest of its kind in Colombia. Rivers in blue are newly identified rivers while rivers in green have different names. The gray rivers belong to Colombia's National Hydrographic layer, which is currently identified rivers. (Please click on the map to interact with it!)

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Mapping illegal deforestation in the Majé Emberá Indigenous territory

  • The Majé Emberá is an indigenous group living in the Bayano region of south-eastern Panama. They moved from Colombia in the 1960s to escape the upheaval of Colombia's armed conflict. They settled next to the Bayano River. However, this river was dammed in 1976, flooding the Emberá settlements and forcibly displacing the community to lands where they held no legal titles.

  • Their resettled territory (Shown in the map below)  highly overlaps with the Bayano Reserve, established to protect the watershed under the Ministry of Environment's jurisdiction. However, the Ministry's non-interference towards encroaching settlers and forest clearing has contributed to reducing Majé's forests by 50% in less than two decades. The fires produced by the settlers have already forcedly displaced several indigenous from their homes, marking the third displacement event this community has had to face in the last 50 years.

  • The map below shows how deforestation has increased in the Embera territory in the past 6 years (2013 Vs. 2019). Feel free to interact with the map, turn on and off the layers representing the deforestation in 2013 and deforestation in 2019. You will see how deforestation has increased. 

  • Overall, deforestation almost tripled in Emberá territory, from 30.178 sqkm in 2013 to 81,464 sqkm in 2019. Additionally, the total forested with indigenous territory area in 2019 was 153.413 sqkm, meaning that deforestation in 2019 is equivalent to more than half of the forested area.

  • Click on the map to interact with it!

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Santiago R. Said-M.Sc. Environmental Biologist