Reclaiming agency: community mapping and the use of technologies by Latin American Indigenous Peoples to protect their lands

Ana Lucia Avila Carrillo, Visiting PhD researcher, Sutherland School of Law

Reclaiming agency community mapping and the use of technologies by Latin American Indigenous Peoples to protect their lands

This blog post deals with one aspect of my doctoral research, which focuses on the use and application of indigenous perspectives in the Guatemalan Judicial System: the protection and promotion of Latin American Indigenous Peoples’ lands and their rights to it, through their use of digital technologies such as mapping, Google Earth and community mapping (or participatory mapping).

In this hyper-globalised world, social life is being redefined in a field where there are few regulations. The digital environment and new technologies are at the same time playing an important role in the freedom of individuals and the exercise of fundamental rights but also by indigenous peoples, who have been using digital technologies as tools to protect their lands and collective rights to their land. According to the latest 2022 report on global connectivity by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union[i], information technology and life through it has accelerated exponentially over the last decade, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, ending up with a world almost completely immersed in digital technology and its various forms of communications and information. The need for access to digital technology and its accelerated growth has been identified as a key tool for Latin American indigenous peoples, in helping them to protect their culture and landscapes through the use of community mapping or participatory papping, especially in those States characterised as intercultural and plurinational.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (hereafter IFAD), over the past 20 years there has been an upsurge in good practices of participatory mapping initiatives throughout the world, in both the Global North and Global South.[ii] Participatory mapping is the creation of maps by local communities, often with the involvement of supporting organisations including governments, at various levels, non-governmental organisations, NGOs, universities, and other actors engaged in development and land-related planning. As the IFAD states, participatory mapping provides a valuable visual representation of what a community perceives as its place and the crucial features within it, including depictions of natural physical features and resources and socio-cultural aspects valued by the community.

In the same sense, according to a UNESCO report authored by Roberto Múkaro Borrero,[iii] Indigenous peoples’ community mapping projects, which use various forms of geospatial methodologies and technologies, continue to gain momentum worldwide. As the report indicates, this is increasingly playing a role in the empowerment of Indigenous Peoples to reach a variety of aims, such as addressing land rights and tenure issues, natural resources management, the development of national forest policies, and strengthening of cultures. These initiatives seem to fall under the para-indigenous category and the maps produced go beyond physical topographies depicted in traditional-style maps to include social, cultural, and economic features, which can be represented in spatial terms, harnessing local knowledge, and stimulating social change.[iv] As a consequence, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), aerial photos, remote-sensed images from satellites and other digital computer-based systems are some of the technologies being integrated into grass-roots mapping plans.

Additionally, the importance of participatory mapping for indigenous peoples relies not only on the protection of the land itself, but also implies the protection of cosmovision and culture, as stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). This includes elements such as identity, self-recognition, common origin, culture, and territoriality, that derive from transmitting and communicating  customs, territory, beliefs, worldview, and language. Nevertheless, as is mentioned in the UNESCO report, in conjunction with land claims and land management issues, using community mapping is a way to address the issues of encroachment into indigenous territories by illegal occupants, especially in Central and South America, and in Africa. It is known that Indigenous communities historically have been removed or marginalised from their lands and decision-making processes over it, particularly those related to land use and planning,[v] in other words, being misled or not being part of the process or not having given “free, prior and informed consent” or even having been consulted by their own States and extractivist industries.

For these reasons, to protect and promote their lands as well as their rights, Latin American indigenous peoples have been making good use of participatory mapping, subverting the use of technology to reclaim some of the agency denied to them by the state. For example, the Indigenous Mapping Network partnered with Google in 2010 to facilitate a two-day workshop on Google campus to train people from native communities in the use of Google’s mapping technologies.[vi] Part of this partnership, for example, is the indigenous Surui community of Brazil, which also partnered with Google to train community members on mobile phone technology and Open Data Kit to record instances of illegal logging. Surui tribe leader Chief Almir learned about Google Earth in 2008 while at an Internet coffee shop. He wanted to use the technology to document illegal logging and mining in the tribe’s territory. As a result, the Surui can now capture GPS-located photos and videos of illegal deforestation for immediate upload to Google’s mapping tools. The culmination of Google’s five-year project with the Surui tribe was a cultural map featuring a collection of photos and videos mapping historical sites and offering 3-D visualisation of the Surui territory in the northwestern Brazilian state of Rondonia; the project and content was unveiled at the side-event during UN Rio +20 held in Brazil 2012.[vii]

In a similar vein, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), mentions and confirms in its report called “Inclusive 2020: Technology for Indigenous Peoples”[viii] that the result of the advance of the digital world, artificial intelligence and access to big data is undoubtedly a generator of new and powerful development opportunities for societies while potentially also deepening existing inequalities. However, when technologies are accessible to indigenous peoples and are complemented by their traditional knowledge, they become a powerful tool to advance their own social, economic, and cultural development. Therefore, through the use of drones, GPS, software, digital mapping platforms, and data management, Indigenous peoples have found an instrument to strengthen their territories and their identity. This has allowed them to integrate, visualize, and document their sacred areas, fauna, flora, crops, zoning, cultural land uses, and existing governance in their territories, based on their traditional knowledge. Another example within these communities is the Guna Island community of Gardí-Sugdub, located in the San Blas archipelago in Panama, which has been planning for 10 years to move to the mainland in response to the growing threat of rising sea levels due to climate change and problems related to population growth. The digital cultural map has been used to visually familiarize the community, extension, and population; at the same time, it has provided for the first time a satellite map of the new territory to which it will be moved.

The centrality of community mapping in the landmark case of Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua

Although these are just some of the many examples of community mapping practices, it can be inferred that an important precedent for the use of community mapping to protect, promote and recognize territories was the Case of the Indigenous Community Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni (hereafter Awas Tingni Community or the community) v. Nicaragua (2001)[ix] before the Inter American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). To provide some brief context: by 1995 the Nicaraguan State had not delimitated the communal lands of the community, nor taken effective measures to ensure the rights or property rights of the community over their ancestral lands and natural resources, nor had they been given a concession or title of those lands and failed to provide an effective legal response to the claims of the community about their collective right to property. On the contrary, the State instead awarded concessions to the company SOLCARSA for the exploitation of natural resources located on the territory of the community, without their free, prior and informed consent or consultation.

In 1996 members of the Awas Tingni Community documented and prepared the first map of the Awas Tingni settlement with GIS, which included data and information by the Community to determine the full extent of their territory; the settlement, food sources, natural resources, and ancestral areas of the community, and also the boundaries with other communities. As a result, during the digitalization of a second map, members of the Community travelled the territory with the GPS equipment and recorded more information.[x] This process aimed to use this information as documentary evidence in the case to protect their land and cultural heritage.

Importantly, the IACtHR judgment acknowledged that among other statements and actions carried out by the community, the documentary evidence of the “Ethnographic Study of the Community and its Territory” which included the participatory mapping made by the members of the Awas Tingni Community, was one of the key factors of consideration condemning the Nicaraguan State for violating, among other rights, their right to property[xi] (Article 21 IACHR). The Court’s ruling indirectly forced the State to delimitate the community’s territory by law (an amendment to the Law No. 14, Nicaraguan Agrarian Law); to end natural resources exploration by third persons on the territory, and to pay equitable compensation for the material and moral damages that the Awas Tingni Community had suffered, as well as pay the costs and expenses generated on the case procedure. But more importantly, the sentence established a precedent to be taken into consideration by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in further judgments establishing that the close relationship that indigenous peoples maintain with the earth should be recognized and understood as the main purpose of their culture, spiritual life, integrity, and economic system. That for the indigenous communities their relationship with the earth is not only a matter of possession and production, but also a material and spiritual element from which they should fully enjoy, to preserve their cultural legacy and transfer it to future generations.

It can be seen that the use of digital technologies by Latin American indigenous peoples has created an impact on their protection, defence, and preservation of their lands and their rights to land; the examples described suggest, that one of the lessons learned from Community Mapping or Participatory Mapping for rights with the use of digital technologies speaks to the importance of the community’s sense of ownership. That it has been noticed that communities are participating in successful programs and through them they have maintained or try to maintain not only the intellectual property rights to the data collected (which can’t be reproduced without their free, prior, and informed consent[xii]), but also, as IFAD states, that with the use of digital technologies the mapping processes have helped them to secure access to land and natural recourses, facilitating the management of these and supporting community advocacy on land related issues, empowering their people and communities. That its beginnings, such as the Awas Tingni Community case, have established an international precedent for future indigenous peoples’ generations, as can be seen in subsequent judgments such as the Saramaka Community v. Suriname (2007) or Moiwana Community v. Suriname (2005). Although for some, 20 years might seem like a long time in the use of technology, the use of this as an innovative tool by indigenous peoples is a huge step for their cultural heritage, since they form part of the one third of humanity that still lacks access to the internet and might enjoy the possibility of basic connectivity; facing among other challenges, digital disparities in a globalized world where we are all within reach and excluded from the same rights.


[i] International Telecommunication Union, (2022). “Global Connectivity Report 2022”, (United Nations: ITU   Publications, 2022), 1.

[ii] International Fund for Agriculture Development, IFAD, “Introduction in Good practices in participatory mapping”, (Italy: International Fund for Agriculture Development, 2009), 1.

[iii] Roberto Múkaro Borrero, “Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society: Emerging uses of ICTs”, (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation: UNESCO, 2003), 14.

[iv]  National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, NOAA, “Stakeholder Engagement Strategies for Participatory Mapping”, (Office for Coastal Management: 2009/2015), 2-3.

[v] International Fund for Agriculture Development, IFAD, “Introduction in Good practices in participatory mapping”, 25.

[vi] Google Maps Official Blog, “Indigenous Mapping: A new Google technology workshop for tribal”, Google Maps blogPublication from 2009), Retrieve from:

[vii] Jillian D’Onfro, “How a “Small but mighty” Team of Googlers is using maps to save people and the planet”, Business accessed 08th March 2024, Retrieve from:

[viii] David Cotacachi, and Ana Grigera, “2020’s Project Inclusiveness: accessible technology for indigenous peoples”, Inter American Development Bank, 2020. Retrieve from:

[ix] Inter American Court of Human Rights, “Case of Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua. (Merits, Reparations and Costs)”, (Costa Rica: Inter American Court of Human Rights, 2001).

[x] Case of Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua, Section V. The Evidence. B) Oral and Expert Evidence (b), 21.

[xi] Inter American Convention of Human Rights. Article 21. “1. Everyone has the right to the use and enjoyment of his property. The law may subordinate such use and enjoyment to the interest of society. 2. No one shall be deprived of his property except upon payment of just compensation, for reasons of public utility or social interest, and in the cases and according to the forms established by law”.

[xii] Roberto Múkaro Borrero, “Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society: Emerging uses of ICTs”, 14.