Many in India do not have undisputed titles to their land. These Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, as they are classified, have traditionally accessed large areas of forests to gather non-timber forest produce and other items for their needs.
Much of the land in the Nilgiris is owned by the government or private businesses that own tea and coffee estates. In many cases, it is unclear who owns the land that these indigenous people have been accessing for generations, and the only record that exists is in the fading memories of elderly people who live there, knowledge which would have been passed down to them by their parents. This has led Keystone, an NGO from Pune to help one of the most serious problems facing indigenous communities.
Until a decade ago, many of the indigenous communities were considered encroachers on the lands they had been using for centuries. The Forest Rights Act changed that by providing for titles to indigenous communities and forest dwellers to land they had been individually cultivating and using collectively. Before any claims could be filed, however, the land had to be surveyed and accurate maps prepared marking the boundaries of land parcels.
The matter of filing was complicated by the fact that land names and landmarks referred to by indigenous communities do not match those used by the government. Even more challenging is that the official boundaries cannot be found in a single government office and are instead spread out among multiple departments.
Keystone tried to solve this problem by using geotagging to demarcate government boundaries. The staff then combined those geotags with scanned-in government maps and high-resolution satellite imagery. They created a map with a layer showing government boundary markers. Community volunteers then used handheld GPS devices to record the boundaries of every indigenous plot claimed under the Forest Rights Act. The result is an accurate map that can be used by indigenous communities to file claims for their land.
Keystone has worked with two villages to prepare claims in this way. The claims were filed in 2015 but the titles have not yet been awarded as there was a long standing stay in the High Court that prevented this. With the lifting of the stay in 2015, if the claims succeed, the foundation will use the same technique to help other communities claim land under the act. This model could be used across India to help indigenous communities file claims for their ancestral lands.
Keystone uses GIS for a number of other purposes to support indigenous communities. They map incidents in which people have lost crops, livestock, housing, and even their lives in conflicts with wildlife. These maps help people understand wildlife behavior patterns, mitigate incidents of conflict and support people’s claims for compensation from the government by documenting the damage they have suffered. Keystone has also mapped the sacred groves of local communities, including individual trees of species considered holy. This helps increase awareness about the status of the groves and trees and helps monitor their health over time