Transparent Chennai:Importance of Community Maps

For background on my adopted project Transparent Chennai.

A map may seem as an ordinary piece of information for many of us. In this age of Google Maps, Mapquest and GPS systems, finding a location, services and places of interest has been simplified to such an extent that it does not feel like a luxury but part of new digital normal.We hardly see it or think about it as a gateway to empowerment.

But a simple community map holds huge value for marginalized sections of society for whom the digital advances are a luxury. It is also an important tool in local information sharing, heritage preservation and also for indigenous property rights.Transparent Chennai’s community mapping project is using this tool to “give voice to the voiceless”.

“I think a great way to understand the importance of community maps and participatory map making in general is to first understand its relational and political nature. For instance, did you know that community mapping has been banned in Malaysia? This followed a landmark court victory where a community made village map was the key piece of evidence used to prove customary rights of communities living in Rumah Nor! (for more please see

How did this kind of map-making, which involved a piece of paper, a few sketch pens and possibly some help from satellite imagery become so powerful that it elicited such a response? “

Along with local children working on their school’s map, Transparent Chennai is also Using participatory mapping to help fishing communities lay claim to their coastline”. This is similar to the Amazon maps project by the Amazon Conservation Team to claim indigenous land or the Aboriginal Australians using map to define their territory.

For the fishermen, the coast is their lifeline. Maps enable them to know what is their so that they can lay claim to it and protect it. Same goes for the indigenous lands, it is a lifeline and integral part of their heritage.

Community mapping project is empowering. In Nepal’s context, participatory community mapping has been used in forest conservation.

“Forest boundary surveying is a mandatory activity in the formal handing over of the forest to the people or Forest User groups (FUG) as they are known in practice.

The spatial issues in mapping are more related to the boundary of the forest, location of the forest itself, the geographic characteristics of the forest i.e. slope, aspect, altitude and area covered by particular forest resources i.e. the forest type, Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) and information that could be useful in preparing a better management and implementation plan of the forest.”

Urban area like Kathmandu could also benefit from participatory mapping project. Let us hope that success in forest conservation will make mapping “hip” enough for the urban planners in Nepal.


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