22 Jun

Company Spotlight: LandMark

When users first access LandMark, the first online, interactive global platform to consolidate maps and critical data on collectively held lands, they are greeted by a dialog box that reads, “Note that the absence of data does not indicate the absence of indigenous or community land.” Historically, maps have been used by settler governments to claim native lands as their own. For Indigenous peoples and local communities, however, maps are also a part of the process of formally registering customary rights into a government cadaster, the legal document that defines the official dimensions and locations of a municipality, state, or country’s land holdings. It allows them to define the boundaries of their land under customary tenure, land which is owned and administered according to their customs. Today, when that information on customary boundaries is not easily accessible or available, governments and private developers see those places as vacant empty lots available for investment. That’s why the World Resources Institute (WRI) and a coalition of other land rights organizations stepped in to develop LandMark.

“Maps are powerful political instruments,” says Peter Veit, director of WRI’s Land and Resources Rights Initiative and one of the lead advisors on LandMark. The American Geographical Society asked him about the origins of the project, the role visualizing geospatial data is playing in securing indigenous and community land rights, and what’s next for LandMark.

The initiative came out of a retreat six or seven years ago, when a number of land rights experts met to develop a strategy for securing indigenous and community lands around the world. Version 1.0 of the platform was officially launched to the public in November 2015 and version 2.0 in December 2017 and they are still in the process of adding new data. According to LandMark’s website, 12.4% of the world’s community and indigenous lands are mapped, but experts estimate that 50% or even more of the world’s land is held by Indigenous peoples. What data the platform includes is an ongoing discussion among the platform creators, but there are currently three layer categories: 1. The physical boundaries of the land; 2. Natural assets located on that land, such as forests, carbon, and ecosystem services; and 3. Critical threats to community lands, such as concessions made to private developers.

Photo credit: Thomas Muller/SPDA Peru

LandMark is not directly involved in mapping communities themselves but focuses instead on aggregating data based on what is already publicly available. This sometimes presents its own hurdles. In Mozambique, for example, LandMark knows that many community lands are mapped, but the government has refused to release them to ensure that they remain available to private developers. In Paraguay, where the government has also not made its maps publicly available, the World Resources Institute stepped in to work with the national Federation for the Self-Determination of Indigenous Peoples (FAPI) to develop their own online platform and map.

The platform’s data, in particular from the legal tenure security layer, has helped NGOs evaluate the strength of national laws protecting indigenous land rights in nearly 120 countries around the world based on 10 indicators. In Australia, NGOs have used the platform to advocate with federal governments for improved legal protections. According to Veit, a surprising collection of LandMark users has been risk assessors for companies, who use the platform to conduct due diligence on potential investments. LandMark’s data helps assessors translate the high costs of dealing with land conflicts to potential investors. Other companies are also beginning to incorporate LandMark data layers onto their own internal risk assessment tools.

An independent assessment conducted on the platform nine months ago made it clear that this was a useful platform for securing collective land rights, but LandMark is working on collecting more data to increase their coverage. While LandMark features extensive data on the Americas, Southern Africa, and Australia, its coverage of Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia, where it is currently focusing its attention, is weak. But, as Veit explains, “this mapping issue is not just a southern issue but a northern problem.” LandMark is also missing a lot of data on the boundaries of community lands in Europe, too. There are ongoing efforts with colleagues in Europe to better understand where those lands lie. They encourage geographers and experts working with these communities to submit maps to LandMark so that the project can share it with its users.

By Vayne Ong