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Bringing ‘invisible’ lands on the map

With support from organizations like WRI, LandMark, a global online platform, is mapping all of the world’s indigenous lands.

Lands owned by indigenous communities around the world are critical to the wellbeing of nearly 2.5 billion people. Community land is generally held in a collective manner under customary tenure arrangements. Experts estimate that 50-65% of the world’s land is community land, though not much is known about the extent to which these lands are recognized. According to a 2015 study of 64 countries, comprising 82% of global land area, only 10% of the world’s land (belonging to communities) was legally recognized and another 8% was designated by governments for communities.

With the percentage of recognized community land standing at 18, an online project is working on mapping all of the world’s indigenous lands to help secure legal rights of communities and alert them about the potential threats of illegal logging and mining. LandMark is compiling maps from a number of indigenous organizations for its website. It is a “first of its kind” initiative that now covers over 12% of the world’s land.

Background and objective

In September 2013, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), Oxfam and the International Land Coalition (ILC) convened the international conference (Scaling-Up Global Efforts to Securing Community Land and Resource Rights) in Switzerland. The World Resource Institute (WRI) was among those leading the “mapping and documentation” sessions, which called for the development of a global map-based platform of indigenous and community lands. Nearly two years later, after many more meetings and participation from institutes and organizations from all over the world, LandMark was launched to the public on November 10, 2015.

“Many governments are not keen to acknowledge or recognize indigenous or community land, so official maps often do not visualize this land and it remains invisible,” says Peter Veit from WRI, which is supporting the LandMark project.

LandMark collects and aggregates maps of all lands that are collectively held by indigenous people and communities. These lands are displayed on the map according to a typology that identifies which lands are acknowledged by governments and which are held under customary tenure arrangements. The objective behind this exercise is to make all indigenous and community lands “visible” so that they are less likely to be lost to irregular corporate or government acquisition. 

Land covered so far

The maps of indigenous and community lands on LandMark currently cover about 12.4% of the world’s land (see map here). The global online platform is continuously adding new data through research and information received by NGOs, governments and other organizations. After getting the information, LandMark adds attributes to the data to fit its typology and compiles it into a global database. While the target is to cover the entire world, being a voluntary platform, LandMark includes data only where the indigenous people and communities, or the organizations representing them, want to make their lands viewable to the public.

The platform, among others, is supported by WRI, which serves as part of the Secretariat, along with the International Land Coalition (ILC). WRI also hosts the web mapping platform, updates and manages the data and provides day-to-day maintenance of the website. Organizations partnering with LandMark, such as the Instituto del Bien Comun based in Peru, PAFID based in the Philippines and AMAN based in Indonesia, work with indigenous people and communities in their respective countries to map their lands and support securing rights.

Principal users

A recent independent evaluation of LandMark found that risk assessors are among the principal users of the platform. Risk assessors who work with/for companies and investors use the data on LandMark to help them assess land conflict risks. Some of the world’s leading companies have developed strong land rights policies which call on their suppliers to recognize indigenous and community land, customary tenure arrangements and avoid land grabbing. LandMark is used by companies and investors to help them assess potential investments.

“Indigenous people are the poorest of the poor. It is very difficult for them to claim their land or stand up to the government and industries,” says De Vera, whose association is mapping indigenous lands for LandMark.

A recent review of national laws in 100 countries found that 55 countries have strong legal provisions for community landholding. In the other 45 countries, there are no discernible provisions for community landholding, or the provisions are weak (Alden Wily 2018). Perhaps the world needs many more projects like LandMark to close this gap.