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Why Cultural Mapping Matters: An Example From the Batwa of Uganda

August 21, 2017 | By Dina Buck

One of The Pachamama Alliance’s aims is to ally modern and indigenous worldviews in ways that bring forth empowerment rather than destruction.  As a new intern here, I look forward to learning more about how indigenous communities and outside individuals and organizations are joining hands in these efforts.

At the same time, it can be difficult to imagine what such an alliance might look like.  I, for one, have been guilty of thinking modern forces invariably destroy ancient ways and wisdom.

In 2011, my perspective changed when I had the opportunity to observe the indigenous Batwa of Uganda complete the second of two cultural maps of their former ancestral territories.  Today, these territories are the Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks.  They also have a third unmapped ancestral territory in Uganda that is now the Echuya Forest Reserve.

Using Modern Technology to Preserve Ancient Cultures

Like so many indigenous peoples around the world, the Batwa’s ancestral territories were taken from them.  The forests the Batwa inhabited for centuries as hunter-gatherers were turned into national parks by the British Colonial Government in the 1930s when immigrant groups living at the forests’ margins began logging them to cultivate land.  Though the Batwa continued to access the forests, albeit with increased difficulty, they were formally evicted from these territories in 1994.

Now, the Batwa can be arrested for illegally crossing into the forests they once inhabited.  Not having lived in, or been able to access, their ancestral territories for almost two decades, they are losing their cultural traditions, memories, and language.  Today, only older community members have memories of living in the forests.

Cultural mapping provided a way for the Batwa to create a tangible record of the knowledge and memories of their elders that might otherwise be lost within the span of a generation.  And their mapping project opened my eyes to how modern technology can help support the survival of indigenous wisdom and traditions.

Honoring Traditions of Democracy

To map the forests, the Batwa used a process called P3DM (Participatory 3-Dimensional Mapping).  While creating the maps, the Batwa relied on their traditional egalitarian ways.  They used democratic and participatory processes to collectively determine what and where things should be marked on the maps.

The completed maps identified resources the Batwa used to hunt and gather, where resources and former hunting grounds were located, where important landmarks and sacred sites were located, and the different ecological zones within the territories.

Because P3DM is a relatively simple process, and is designed to be participatory, the communities were able to play a primary role in constructing the maps.  Additionally, not just the elders, but community members of all ages were able to play a role in building the maps.  When they were completed, because the maps are 3-dimensional, all participants were able to comprehend the maps, regardless of whether or not they had ever seen or used a map before.

Potential Outcomes of Cultural Mapping

While the Batwa used cultural mapping as a way to record knowledge of the forests they no longer inhabit, other indigenous groups still living within their traditional territories can use cultural mapping as a tool to protect and/or claim their land rights, and protect their cultural autonomy.

Cultural mapping has the potential to:

  • Increase intercultural understanding.
  • Help indigenous communities claim land rights, and/or safeguard their territory from illegal resource extraction.
  • Preserve indigenous knowledge.
  • Provide clarity, especially for non-indigenous communities, regarding under-acknowledged strengths indigenous communities possess.
  • Catalyze indigenous communities’ capacity to set in place appropriate strategies for handling challenges they face.
  • Help external organizations gain a more comprehensive view of the biodiversity that exists in present and former indigenous territories.

Making Ancestral Wisdom Tangible

Though the Batwa can never return to their ancestral territories, the cultural mapping project was an important and empowering step on their path toward recreating their lives.

The mapping project enabled them to remember, and convey to others, their deep connection with the forests they once lived in, and forge stronger relationships with dominant society and its agencies.

In completing the mapping, the Batwa now have a tangible record of their memories that serves as a symbol of their former lives, as an educational tool for all, and as a demonstration of the efforts they are taking to advocate for their rights as equal citizens.

More About Cultural Mapping

To learn more about how indigenous communities are benefiting from cultural mapping, check out these additional resources:

Additional Reading Social Justice and Environmental Justice Learn about the  sometimes overlooked connection between social justice and environmental  justice.

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