Criminalizing Community Mapping: Village Mapping Program Threatened
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Source: Earth Island.
Village Mapping Program Threatened
by Harlan Thompson
Borneo - Since the early 1990s, the
shrinking size and cost of Global
Positioning System (GPS) units and
the increasing ease of using
Geographic Information System
(GIS) technology have allowed
ordinary citizens around the world to
make accurate, low-cost maps.
Today, community mapping efforts
are going on in almost every country
In May 2001, an astounding
indigenous rights victory was won
when the Sarawak High Court
found a tree-plantation company
guilty of bulldozing land belonging to
the Iban village of Rumah Nor. A
map made with GPS technology was the key piece of evidence in the case.
This ruling sets a legal precedent and overturns a number of existing laws
limiting indigenous land rights. Unfortunately, the Malaysian government has
appealed the case and a federal court is set to review the verdict.
Just as the Borneo Project's community mapping program in Sarawak
began to bring exciting new legal victories, the very ability to make a map has
come under serious threat.
Last November, Borneo's government passed a law to undermine
community-based mapping. The Land Surveyor's Bill requires that all
mapmakers be certified by the Director of Lands and Surveys - a politically
appointed position. Uncertified mappers face steep fines and imprisonment of
up to three years. Furthermore, certification can be revoked at any time, for
Meena Raman, the executive director of the non-governmental organization
(NGO) Sahabat Alam Malaysia
(SAM), says the new law "will definitely have serious repercussions on our
mapping work. The crucial parts are the limitation on boundary surveys of land
and the penalties for the 'offense' of 'practicing illegally as a surveyor.' These
provisions are a reaction to the Rumah Nor victory and are attempts to defeat
the right of indigenous people to determine their boundaries."
SAM's Jok Jau Evong (winner of the 1998 Condé Nast Environmentalist of
the Year Award) observed that at first glance "the law appears to be a
reasonable set of rules regulating the surveying profession.... However, closer
examination of the wording shows that the law has a devastating impact against
the natives' ability to defend their land.... In Sarawak, numerous NGOs have
always assisted in community-mapping activities for the natives, especially
those who are poor and do not understand their rights." Under this new law,
Jok Jau Evong fears SAM's ability to provide this assistance is under threat.
A Growing Mapping Movement
There was no community mapping in Sarawak when the Borneo Project began
training mappers seven years ago. Since then, local NGOs, including SAM,
IDEAL and the Borneo Resources Institute (BRIMAS), have mapped dozens
of villages with mappers trained by the Borneo Project. In the wake of the
Rumah Nor victory, other NGOs expressed interest in developing mapping
Several NGOs were in the midst of training a new wave of mappers when
the new law was announced. SAM had just trained eight mappers with funding
and support from the Borneo Project's mapping program. All Sarawak NGOs
involved in community mapping have since agreed to increase cooperation and
There was no opportunity to oppose the Land Surveyors Bill since the
ruling Parti Bersato Sabah party controls nearly all seats in Sarawak's state
legislature. A mere three days after being announced, the law was pushed
through the legislature without debate on the first day of the new legislative
Under the new law, every map made by certified mappers must be
approved by the Director of Lands and Surveys before it can be used in court.
The law may be unconstitutional since it usurps the power of judges to
determine the admissibility of community maps. Lawyers are optimistic that the
law can be overturned, though it will be a long and costly process.
In the meantime, community mapping continues, but with several new
approaches. First, more maps need to be made by the people living in villages
under threat rather than by outside volunteers. This means that more villagers
must be trained in advanced mapping skills.
Second, we must help experienced community mappers gain official
certification by assuring additional training and course work in surveying. We
will then see if the government arbitrarily precludes community activists from
A third option is to hire licensed surveyors. This would require additional
funds and it may be difficult to find surveyors who will risk their professional
reputation for the politically unpopular cause of native land rights.
Help Save Community Mapping
The Land Surveyor's Bill threatens similar mapping efforts around the globe.
Legal experts advise the Borneo Project that no country has ever passed such
a law. If it goes unchallenged, it may prove an inspiration for other repressive
Because Malaysia is part of the British Commonwealth, a law passed here
can serve as a legal precedent in other commonwealth countries. While the
Rumah Nor case could assist the recognition of land rights elsewhere, the Land
Surveyor's Bill could also be precedent-setting in dozens of countries, including
India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The Land Surveyor's Bill must be challenged in the court of international
public opinion and it must be challenged on the ground by the communities that
are most affected. Dozens of lawsuits against logging and plantation companies
are in the works and all of them need maps showing community boundaries and
the areas trespassed by companies.
Meanwhile, vast tracts of indigenous lands are being allocated for logging
and industrial tree plantations without the informed consent of the inhabitants.
According to one local lawyer, only 5 percent of the communities who need
legal assistance in Sarawak receive it.
What You Can Do Your support is needed to continue the struggle for
rainforest protection and indigenous peoples' land rights. We must redouble our
efforts to keep the mapping program alive. We need to greatly increase our
support to local organizations to meet the challenge of the Land Surveyor's Bill
and intensify legal outreach, training and advocacy. Contributions to Save
Community Mapping can be made payable to the Borneo Project [1771
Alcatraz Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94703, (510) 547-4258, fax: -4259,
Copyright Earth Island Journal
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