In Ecuador, Waorani Communities Use Open-Source Tools to Collaboratively Map Their Territory
Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon is shaped like a mechanical claw, or the open jaws of a craggy, prehistoric reptile. It grasps in its mouth roughly half of the land titled to the Waorani, one of the country’s indigenous nationalities. Peering down at the Google Earth view it’s impossible to tell where one might begin and the other might end. Dark green tree cover obscures a web of settlements, hunting paths, fishing holes, and water sources, making the area appear nearly empty. The Waorani describe the government maps of the area as similarly empty or “dead.” Using low-connectivity tools, they have begun mapping their territory as they see it, both for their own edification, and in case they need to defend their land rights.
In 2011, the Ministry of Hydrocarbons opened additional areas in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon to oil exploration, including large swaths of Waorani territory. The government put those blocks up for auction in 2012. In some parts of Waorani territory, negotiations for seismic testing are already proceeding apace.
According to the 2008 constitution, the Ecuadorian government is supposed to consult with indigenous peoples before carrying out or approving projects that would impact them or their land. By mapping their communities, the Waorani are preparing for when the government and the oil companies inevitably come knocking.
Nearly a year and a half ago, several Waorani communities began the project using GPS devices and open-source tools that a nonprofit called Digital Democracy has adapted to work offline. Equipped with these tools, they are filling up the maps of their territory with the landmarks that matter to them: hunting paths and camps, waterfalls, stands of a particular kind of tree, paths between villages, sources of medicinal plants, sacred sites, and more.
Digital Democracy partners with local organizations around the world to help marginalized groups and communities use technology to advocate for themselves and their rights. In Ecuador, the organization works with the philanthropic group Clear Water—founded by the actress Trudie Styler, who also started the Rainforest Fund with her husband, Sting—and the Alliance de Ceibo, a coalition of four indigenous nationalities, including the Waorani.
Digital Democracy’s Aliya Ryan, who was in Ecuador recently helping facilitate the project with the Waorani, says the mapping serves specific and varied purposes in each community. For example, one community wants to use it to help create a resource management plan. But the information generated is also shared between communities, creating a mutually-beneficial resource for all the Waorani.
Opi Nenquimo, one of the Waorani leading the mapping project, told Civicist—through Ryan, who translated—that existing maps of the area weren’t drawn from the Waorani’s point of view but from a western point of view. He said they reflect western values and minimize the Waorani’s priorities. The Waorani-led mapping project is meant to turn that dynamic on its head.
The mapping itself is carried out over a period of months. First, residents come together in a community meeting to hand-draw a map of their community and environs on big sheets of paper, making note of the paths and features that they want to map with the GPS. Ryan said that in this stage they aim for broad participation. Sometimes the men and women break into different groups and each draw their own map, which can be a good way of capturing their different kinds of expertise.
Next, the community uses these maps to plan out coordinated walks to be captured with the GPS. There is a core mapping team made up of four representatives from different participating communities who have all been fully trained in GPS and OpenStreetMap; in each community an additional handful of residents are also trained in some of the more technical aspects of mapping. One or more of these local experts will accompany village elders, hunters, or other guides on walks to important landmarks, like salt licks where animals feed or the best places along the river for fishing, and capture the location with the GPS device.
After the walks, they connect the GPS device to a computer and go through the points that they entered along the way and label them one by one. This information is then uploaded onto a hard drive or thumb drive and carried to the other Waorani communities, creating what is called a sneakernet.
“Every device—laptop, phone or tablet—can have its own database with a copy of the map,” wrote Gregor MacLennan, Digital Democracy’s program director, in a blog post about adapting OpenStreetMap to work without central servers. “Users can synchronize edits with other users over the internet, a local network connection, or synchronize edits to a USB drive and send it on a canoe downriver to the next village.”
After the first round of mapping, Digital Democracy prints out a draft version of the map and brings it back to the community to see if they have any revisions. Once that information has been added or edited, Digital Democracy prints out a large map for the village as a whole, and a smaller version for each family in the community. The maps are not published on the internet, and only the Waorani can decide if, when, and how to make the information public.
“So often projects partnering with indigenous communities for research or mapping purposes depend on methodologies, software, and hardware that disempowers and distances the communities from managing and maintaining that information once it has been collected,” Ryan said. “This is part of the problem that Mapeo [the customized mapping software] and Digital Democracy is trying to address, and to ensure that the Waorani themselves are in a position to direct the process of mapping and make decisions about when and how to publish the data.”
Nenquima said he is proud that the maps and the data that populates them are created, owned, and managed by the Waorani communities. He added that he is particularly proud of the intercommunity trust that this project has built. He said in the past there has been some friction between different Waorani communities and there were concerns that these maps would emphasize the divisions between them, but that those fears have not come to fruition.
In terms of preparing for conversations or confrontations with the government and oil companies, this capacity-building could be as important as the physical and digital maps the Waorani are making together.
This project has in many ways been made possible by advances in technology that have vastly simplified the mapping process. MacLennan says he has been working on territory mapping for 17 years now. A decade or more ago, the available mapping programs took four to five months of training to learn, but now open-source, easy-to-learn tools like OpenStreetMap can be learned in only a few hours.
“Our goal is that we work ourselves into redundancy,” he said, about Digital Democracy’s role in helping indigenous communities around the world.
Still, even OpenStreetMap tools had to be tailored to work in the Amazon. First, the OpenStreetMap database had to be adapted to work offline.
In addition to this essential change, Digital Democracy also customized the OpenStreetMap editing software to accommodate the particular needs of indigenous groups.
“OpenStreetMap’s tools…are all designed around OpenStreetMap’s way of looking at the world, which is coffee shops, streets, and highways,” said MacLennan. Digital Democracy wanted to diversify the mapping language so that Waorani users would have relevant icons and symbols with which to populate their map. “Instead of mapping coffee shops we’re mapping hunting paths or particular kinds of medicinal trees,” MacLennan said.
The project is still in the earlier stages. Only seven Waorani communities—of 48 legally-recognized communities, 54 in all—have started the mapping process. Two have received final maps, two have submitted revisions on draft maps, and three have just concluded the initial community meetings and have begun the process of collecting data points with the GPS. These seven communities are fairly close to one another. The idea was to start in a central location and expand the mapping from there. Ryan estimates that it will take nearly three years to finish mapping the territory in its entirety.
Whether these maps will ever be made public, in part or in their entirety, remains to be seen. “The information the Waorani are collecting contains a wealth and depth of knowledge about their territory, cultural history, and relationship with land, some of which they may deem sensitive or private,” Ryan explained. “The Waorani may choose to make public some, or even all, of this information if it serves their aims, indeed they intend to publish an interactive online map in the future. However any such publication needs to be the result of their own process of decision making, rather than a result of the methods or software they are using.”
“Open data is often considered a means by which the public can hold traditional holders of power to account, and in many cases it is,” Ryan added. “For indigenous peoples however, and other marginalized peoples, there may be instances where the reverse is true. By keeping control of this information the Waorani might be able to shift the traditional balance of power away from government, corporations and others who in the past have tended to be as extractive of knowledge and information from indigenous communities as they are of oil and natural resources from indigenous lands.”