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Really Remote Sensing

January 1, 1999

Walking for hours through pouring rain, chest-high water and dense forests, people living on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast are using GPS (the global positioning system) to create the first-ever maps showing land claims in their remote region.

The inhabitants of the resource-rich area include indigenous peoples and mixed-race, Spanish-speaking Mestizos. But no one has ever mapped the communities’ borders in detail, and as economic pressure mounts to develop and exploit the area’s resources, the ownership issue has become critical.

As a first step toward formalizing land rights, the Central American and Caribbean Research Council, an Austin-based non-governmental organization, collaborated with Nicaragua’s Center for Investigation and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast, to use GPS technology to spell out the claims of each of 127 local communities. To create the maps, members of the communities used GPS to document the position of familiar landmarks, such as trees or crossroads, that form traditional boundaries. At the same time, the local volunteers gathered information about current and historical land use to back their claims. Position data were recorded in waterproof yellow notebooks and later entered into an electronic spreadsheet. The researchers overlaid the GPS-based boundary information and related land-use data on a conventional topographic map.

The researchers chose inexpensive and relatively inaccurate hand-held GPS receivers. The low price made it possible to buy more of them and map the land more quickly. And according to Peter Dana, the project’s geographer/cartographer, the easy-to-use units also made the process more open. “Everyone assumes that you need the highest possible precision at any cost, but what that means is that only trained surveyors can produce the data and the maps,” says Dana.

In addition, he adds, higher levels of precision would actually have interfered with the process: “If we’d done real-time kinematic surveying to centimeters, we would have had to make thousands of position measurements along contested boundaries. Folks could easily dispute them and feel that they had to defend them or fight for them in some way.”

Preliminary maps were completed and delivered to the government in June 1998. However, these maps are only a first step in preparation for the long and complicated political and legal process of establishing land titles. Other hurdles include reconciliation of overlapping claims between communities, follow-up mapping, and creating resource management plans. But in a place where land ownership battles can turn violent, the initial success of the GPS project could foretell more peaceful resolution of land disputes and stronger claims for the locals.