By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new map shows areas occupied by indigenous people in Central America, using previously untapped native knowledge, that could help claims by local tribes to ancestral land amid rapid deforestation, its makers said.
The map shows major overlaps between areas where indigenous people live and where forest is preserved, bolstering the argument that they are critical to protecting natural resources, said Grethel Aguilar, regional director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which made the map.
That can help tribes and communities hold their own in negotiations over land threatened with development, she said.
"This map shows that where indigenous people live, you will find the best preserved natural resources," she said in a statement. "They depend on those natural resources to survive."
The first-of-its-kind map, unveiled on Thursday as part of a United Nations forum, draws on local knowledge previously overlooked in cartography as well as satellite images provided by governments, the IUCN said.
Activists and climate advocates say through traditional lifestyles, indigenous peoples protect forests that absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide.
But between half and two-thirds of the world's land is held by indigenous people under informal ownership often not recognized by governments, according to a report this year by various groups including Oxfam.
Without formal title, they are vulnerable to being displaced from land where they have lived for generations by large-scale resource extraction projects, said the report.
Commercial farming, cattle production and timber collection are among industries often pushing for the clearing of forests.
Francisco Ramiro Batzin, who runs the indigenous Sotz'il Association in Guatemala, said the map would help his tribe, the Mayan Kaqchikel, assert their rights to ancestral land against claims from mining developers.
"The map can help us obtain judicial recognition ... of the indigenous land," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The project involved consultations with some 3,500 indigenous people across Central America, the map makers said.
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(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)