Mapping Diversity

Mapping the Nature of Diversity

A landmark project reveals a remarkable correspondence between indigenous land use and the survival of natural areas.

Maps may be famously variable in accuracy, but generally speaking they are no more "objective" than are movies, novels, speeches, or paintings. Even if painstakingly accurate, they heavily reflect the interests of those who paid to have them made. Those interests may be political, commercial, or scientific. In the second half of the twentieth century, world maps emphasized the preoccupations of the Cold War, with a primary emphasis on international borders. The globes we had in our classrooms showed a world made up of nations. Until recently, most maps showed very little of what some of us now believe to be critical to the future of life: the boundaries of bioregions, watersheds, forests, ice caps, and biodiversity hotspots-and the principal ocean currents, wind currents, oceanic fisheries, and migratory flyways. In one of the offices at Worldwatch, there's a large map of North America showing nothing but the distribution of underground water. In World Watch, over the years, we've published maps of the global distribution of infectious diseases, war, slavery, refugee flows, and electric light as seen from space. The advancing technologies of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), combining the use of satellite imaging and digital data, have made these tasks easier by replacing laborious cartographic handwork with a capacity to superimpose maps of various elements showing how these elements may be related.

The fold-out map on the following pages is a product of one of the most remarkable mapmaking efforts of recent times. It is a simplified version of a monumental map created under the direction of a nonprofit group called the Center for the Support of Native Lands, and produced in its final form by the National Geographic Society. It was designed to exhibit two main categories of information: the distribution of cultural diversity in Central America and southern Mexico, and the distribution of forest and marine resources in that region. By superimposing these sets of information in detail, the map strongly confirms a hypothesis that has long been familiar to environmentalists and anthropologists alike: that there is a significant correlation of some kind between cultural diversity and biological diversity. That may seem obvious, as the homogenizing impacts of globalization are fueled and further exacerbated by a stripping of forests for cattle-ranching, plantations, and urban development. But in the past, the kind of data available to demonstrate this correlation on a regional or global basis has been fairly broad-brush. In 1992, for example, Worldwatch published a paper by Alan Durning, Guardians of the Land: Indigenous Peoples and the Health of the Earth, which included a diagram showing which nations had the highest cultural diversity (defined as those in which more than 200 languages are spoken) and which had the highest biological diversity (those with the highest numbers of unique species). Of the nine countries with the highest cultural diversity, six also ranked among those with the highest numbers of endemic species.

The history of Native Land's map of Central America and southern Mexico can be traced back even further, to the publication of the book Regions of Refuge, by the Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, in 1967. Aguirre Beltrán noted that beginning with the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, indigenous peoples who had been decimated by warfare and by diseases against which they had no resistance sought refuge in "particularly hostile landscapes or areas of difficult access to human circulation." It was in those remote, often mountainous or jungle-covered areas that the refugees were able to rebuild their societies and preserve their cultures-and it is in those areas that they survive today.

In 1991, anthropologist Mac Chapin, who was then working for the Central America program of Cultural Survival, found himself perusing a map entitled "Indians of Central America 1980s," which had been compiled by the Louisiana State University Department of Geography and Anthropology two years earlier. He noticed that the indigenous population was located primarily in two areas-in highland Guatemala and strung out like a chain of beads along the Caribbean coast. "As I took this in," Chapin recalls, "I periodically looked at a 1986 National Geographic map of Central America hanging on the wall before me." The primary display was a standard "political" map, but in the corner was a small inset map showing, somewhat crudely, the region's vegetation. According to this map, most of Central America's natural forest cover was to be found hugging the Caribbean side of the isthmus-precisely where the lowlands indigenous peoples lived.

Chapin began thinking about the possibility of making a map showing the correspondence of indigenous settlement and forest cover, and shortly thereafter he was invited by Anthony de Souza, editor of the National Geographic journal Research & Exploration, to make one. The map-a precursor to the one which appears here-was published in that journal in 1992. It had small circulation but huge impact. Copies ended up on walls at the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, UN Food and Agricultural Organization, and the private residence of the president of Guatemala. One of the strongest impacts was on the indigenous peoples of the region. "The map helped to strengthen what soon became a widespread campaign for protecting and legalizing their territories," says Chapin.

That campaign also opened up a new venture for Native Lands-helping indigenous groups document their own land-use and marine-use patterns for purposes of fending off incursions by developers, squatters, loggers, and the like. Traditionally, most of the native communities had regarded their territories as commons, and had never seen any need for such documents as plats and deeds; but the lack of such "proof" of ownership meant they were often unable to defend their territories from being occupied or exploited by outsiders. Chapin and his colleagues, who by 1994 had left Cultural Survival to for Native Lands, embarked on a series of "participatory mapping" projects, in which indigenous groups made hand-drawn maps of their ancestral lands, and these maps were then combined with inputs from aerial photograph interpreters and cartographers to produce highly detailed, small-scale maps of the tribal territories. (One of the hand-drawn maps was published on the back cover of the January/February 1994 World Watch.) The progress of the participatory mapping program is summarized in a book coauthored by Chapin and his colleague Bill Threlkeld, Indigenous Landscapes: A Study in Ethnocartography, published in 2001.

In 2000, Native Lands decided to do an update of the original Central America map. "We knew that deforestation had advanced and that problems with Central America's Caribbean coastal environment-the bleaching of coral reefs and decline in fisheries-were increasing." Several heavily financed conservation projects had failed to halt the destruction. (The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor program of the World Bank had spent close to $100 million in the 1990s, and according to several assessments had little to show for it.)

It was also possible, by 2000, to make a far more accurate and informative map than the original. There had been major advances in satellite technology, and the success of the first version mobilized greater financial and professional resources. The original map had not included features of marine ecosystems, and had shown indigenous territories only on land. The new one would show marine-use areas, which are of critical importance to indigenous peoples along the Caribbean coast. The new map would also include the Maya region of southern Mexico, which the first map had not. The project would integrate the work of indigenous representatives, anthropologists, ecologists, and cartographers from every country from Mexico to Panama.

Data-gathering took 15 months. The map was then designed by National Geographic Maps, the cartographic division of the National Geographic Society, and printed in an oversized (44 x 27-inch) format. The total cost, including data-gathering, design, and production, came to about $400,000. The map was printed with Spanish and English text and published as an insert to the February 2003 issue of the Latin American edition of National Geographic magazine, National Geographic en Español, with about 130,000 copies to be distributed in Central America and Mexico.

 -Ed Ayres


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