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Criminalizing Community Mapping: Village Mapping Program Threatened
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Source: Earth Island.

Village Mapping Program Threatened

by Harlan Thompson
Borneo Project

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 on Earth.

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 any reason.

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 programs.

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 share resources.

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 session.

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 gaining certification.

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 governments.

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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