Participatory and GPS mapping

Possible objectives

  • Starting or supporting dialogue between communities and the government
  • Providing concrete evidence to governments to encourage them to recognise indigenous lands
  • Supporting communities by presenting and providing knowledge

This introduction to participatory mapping is part of a Primer for using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. It is designed as a starting point for organisations and activists interested in adding technology to improve their advocacy work, and is the product of a partnership between Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room.

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Rainforest Foundation Norway The Engine Room

What is it

  • Participatory mapping (or community-based mapping) collects information from an area’s inhabitants about how the area is used, and the local community’s practices.
  • Information is is collected in two main ways: through directly consulting a community, or giving communities the tools to document their knowledge.
  • This information is used to create maps based on names and definitions that the community itself uses, which can complement official maps.

How it can help

Official maps and registers of land ownership (cadasters) often only consider the “official” classification of land. They often do not recognise that land may be being used in other ways, sometimes by people who lived there long before official maps were made. This is a particular problem in forest areas, where drawing clear geographic lines is often difficult. Participatory mapping helps by showing how the area is actually being used, comparing this with “official” maps, and using the information to claim communities’ rights to land.


There are many ways to conduct participatory mapping, covering a wide spectrum of technology and accessibility. The right technique depends on resources and community preference. Some examples are:

  • Interviews where communities are asked about how they use land, and how they think about their land and the ecosystem in that area. Communities choose any medium they prefer, from narration to drawing on paper, or on the ground.
  • Printing official maps of the area, explaining how they relate to their community, and asking communities to draw on additional information. A more advanced method is producing 3D models of the land.
  • Communities are provided with GPS trackers and record information as they walk through an area. The data can be used to create map overlays.


Participatory mapping requires significant investment in training and supporting field workers. Field workers play a crucial role in introducing the activity, training communities to interact with maps, and making sure that all community representatives understand it. Producing maps and entering the collected information requires GIS skills to ensure measurements are accurate and to scale. GPS tracker devices are not expensive, but also require training. The most widely used brands, like Garmin and Magellan, offer GPS locators starting at USD100. In addition, most entry-level smartphones have GPS capabilities.

Risks and challenges

Participatory mapping collects information about where communities live, and which areas have the most resources: companies could use this to their own advantage. It can also cause problems within a community: different communities may be using the same land, or there may be differing perspectives within the same community. The best response to these situations depends on the context: consult as many representatives as possible, and always take gender differences into account.

Case studies

Participatory mapping in Cameroon

Forest People’s Programme, Centre for Environment and Development (CED) and Planet Survey developed a programme for the Bagyeli community in Cameroon to map their lands and resources using training in GPS data collection. The resulting maps helped 14 Bagyeli communities from the Bipindi area gain some legal recognition of their land rights. They were also used to help negotiate local agreements over land boundaries between communities.

How did it help?

  • Illiterate community members successfully used modified mobile devices that used icons instead of text.
  • Communities said that they became more aware of the power of maps as a way of claiming land that belonged to them.
  • As an advocacy tool the maps were most successful when presented to Western conservationist organisations and logging companies (though they were less effective with local companies).

Monitoring poaching in Congo

In 2013, Mbendjele hunter-gatherers worked with the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) Research Group at University College London to collect data to monitor poaching using an Android app. The project used the Samsung Galaxy XCover phone running Android, and a modified version of Open Data Kit Collect that used pictorial icons instead of words. To minimise risks to monitors if they were caught by poachers, the project included a simple phone-lock procedure that allowed users to hide the app’s functions rapidly.

How did it help?

  • The project had built strong connections since 2005, when Mbendjele involved in data collection were impressed by the seriousness with which the timber company treated maps they created.
  • The monitors successfully learned to use the audio, photo and video functions, recording high-quality images. The robust build of the phones meant that they worked well in forest conditions.
  • The project used the Hatsuden Nabe, a cooking pot that converts thermal energy from a fire into electricity, to charge the phones (it provided a 60% charge in 90 minutes). Solar panels were also useful when the monitors was not directly under the rainforest canopy.
  • Although communications networks did not extend deep into the forest, the monitors were able to transfer information using SMS or 3G internet when they visited nearby towns.


This site was created by Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room as an introduction to using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. Download the whole primer here. It was first published in July 2016. Last updated in July 2016.

Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) is one of the world’s leading organisations in the field of rights-based rainforest protection. Its mission is to support indigenous peoples and traditional populations of the world’s rainforests in their efforts to protect their environment and fulfil their rights by assisting them in:

  • Securing and controlling the natural resources necessary for their long-term well-being and managing these resources in ways which do not harm their environment, violate their culture or compromise their future;
  • and developing the means to protect their individual and collective rights and to obtain, shape, and control basic services from the state.

RFN collaborates closely with more than 70 local and national environmental, indigenous and human rights organisations in 11 countries in the Amazon region, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.


The Engine Room is an international organisation that helps activists, social change organisations, and change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact. The Engine Room provides direct, project-level support for social change organisations; brings together communities to coordinate emerging ideas and collect practitioners; and documents and publishes findings to help anyone in the sector make better decisions about using data and technology.

Tom Walker and Tin Geber researched and wrote the main narrative, while Ruth Miller led work on the design and visuals creation. Vemund Olsen and Christopher Wilson provided invaluable input and editing support. The site sourcecode is available on Github. Comments or questions? Contact or

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