Researchers at the University of Washington and George Mason University undertook a project to use GIS for capturing indigenous voices to aid them in their struggle to gain political strength in their homelands. The focus was on the Maijuna people of the Peruvian Amazon, and the project hoped to create a map that they could use to pursue land rights. Along the way, the authors found that their methodological choices impacted the natives in ways they hadn’t initially considered – and it did so in a positive way.
The Maijuna are an indigenous community of Nueva Vida in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon. Small in numbers at about 400, the residents of these communities rely on subsistence practices for their way of life. And while they have been recognized by the government and allotted small tracts of land, there are hundreds of thousands of hectares that have not been designated under their control, even though their ancestors have been there for centuries. This has led to poaching and illegal logging in the area that negatively affects their ability to be self-sustaining.
During the course of their research, the geographers employed ethnographic methods which spoke to the importance of the Maijuna people in regards to their history with the land. Through interviews and observations, the Maijuna demonstrated pride and encouraged the younger generations to learn more about their history and way of life. This led the researchers to look for a link between the use of GIS mapping and the emotional impacts on the people who reside in the areas they study.
As precedent has been set on using participatory mapping with indigenous people’s spatial knowledge, the authors strove to adhere to these principles while creating the most accurate representation of the study area. Their research had two important findings on the link between participatory mapping and empowerment: (1) the virtual format of GIS technology allows the inhabitants to project their voice to a wider audience, specifically the governing body that dictates land policy; and (2) GIS encodes indigenous knowledge in a way that can be transmitted as “legitimate” amongst those making decisions.
In their conclusion, the authors felt that their use of emotional and affective participant “voices” greatly benefitted their project as it expanded upon the types of data that would normally be used in these types of studies. Further, in making this choice, it empowered the local study participants to have a more powerful voice in the management decisions that directly impacted their futures.