Making Mapmaking Illegal

According to National Geographic Malaysia and the Philippines have passed laws making it illegal for anybody other than certified specialists to make maps. The laws are aimed at indigenous groups fighting for their land rights:

Tribes in Southeast Asia are being kept from using the latest high-tech gadgets to help them win land rights.
That’s the outcry from activist groups that have been helping indigenous communities mix computers and handheld navigation devices with paints, yarn, and cardboard to make simple but accurate three-dimensional terrain models.
Several tribes have already used such models, based on data from geographic information systems (GIS), to defend their territories from developers making claims via modern legal systems.

The problem:

Rambaldi Giacomo, director of the nonprofit Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development, is among the experts using terrain models to help indigenous groups.
“The question is how to help [these] people communicate with engineers, government officials, and development agencies,” Giacomo said.
“There are new technical wonders such as Google Earth, GIS, and GPS [global positioning systems], but you can’t take them to people who are often illiterate.”

The process is really quite fascinating. The groups in question are shown satellite photos and such, and the mental maps of the group are marked out on it. Then GPS and GIS systems are used to tie that mental space to geographical coordinates. As the National Geographic article states:

“It is a way for [indigenous] people to visualize and communicate their sense of space,” Giacomo said.

More importantly, it is a way for them to do so in a legally meaningful fashion. Apparently, though, laws in both countries restrict even the gathering of mapping data.


One Response

  1. Here in France, it’s illegal to collect data on ethnicity (the “reason” being everyone is equal by law, so to distinguish or acknowledge differences must be illegal…). Hence, I presume, it is also illegal to make maps showing social or ethnic variations. In France.
    But: You can at least imagine this silliness being changed, and been changed without resorting to bribes. That’s not to say either would happen in Malaysia and the Philippines (but I suspect both have a much worse ranking on, e.g., Transparency International’s corruption index).

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