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The rights scale


PEOPLE POWER: These maps will include information about different zones - forest, agriculture and residential. They will also map the community's history

Community mapping is empowering those who dwell in the dense Amazonian forests of Brazil.

They have lived for generations without any formal titles or documentation of all they own and live off. These far flung communities in the Amazon are under threat from logging, mining and plantations companies. But now with help from conservation NGOs and even government authorities they are learning how participatory community mapping can be used as a tool to fight back.

In Brazil, it was the military and the government who used to make maps, and they would chose the information they deemed important to include in the map. With participatory mapping, the process has moved to the hands of the people who actually live in the areas being mapped and who know the reality best.

Small communities of just over 100 families or less are being taught to map the extent of their territories and to show the places and the resources used by them in their daily lives. These maps are expected to help them assert their rights on the land and the resources in territories they have lived off traditionally.

Macro-level territorial mapping of the Tapajos-Arapiuns extractive reserve area in the Amazon (an area in which the residents of the forests are allowed to extract forest products, but the forest itself is protected), showed that 72 communities of 4, 500 families or almost 20, 000 people live within the reserve's 640, 000 hectare area. In these remote areas in the Amazon region, the communities are separated by kilometers of forests. Most villages are located along the river, which is the highway for the region since roads cannot be cut through the forest.

Jo?o Pedro, one of the local residents, explained how participatory mapping process helped organise the communities. "It has made them aware of their rights, how to legalise the existence of the communities and how to establish associations. The pressure to map the area made them have more protected areas and this gave more responsibilities to the communities, " says Pedro.

Saude e Alegria (Health and Happiness), an NGO that works on issues of health, environment and sustainable development in the Tapajos area, is now doing micro-mapping or community mapping to improve land planning and to give the communities the tools reqired to plan their own development. The maps will include information about forest zones, agriculture zones, residential zones, natural resources and so on along with the history of community, its culture, produce and general socio-economic and population data. This micro-mapping, which was started last year, is expected to cover ten communities along the banks of the Tapajos River located in the reserve area. The project will be completed by the end of the year after which, depending on the availability of funds, it could be replicated in other territories.

"We hope that the government will be able to take this model and replicate it. It is important to map the communities to understand their needs and to acknowledge their existence. Amazon is not just a vast empty forest. It has people living inside it, dependent on it. No plan to protect and preserve the Amazon can be successful without acknowledging and addressing the needs of the people there, " says Caetano Scannavino, project coordinator in Saude e Alegria.

Rema Nagarajan is a 2012 Harvard Nieman Global Health Fellow. Her travel to Brazil is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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