A guide to good practice

A training kit promotes improvement in community-based mapping projects

Giacomo Rambaldi

As geographic information technologies become easier to use – and misuse – a group of experts has developed a training kit to improve the practice of community-based mapping.

In the last five years, geographic information technologies have become easier to use, more affordable (in many cases free) and far more widely available. Web applications such as OpenStreetMap and Google Maps offer anyone with access to the internet the possibility to customize maps and add information for, potentially, millions of other people to see.

Increased access to mapping technology can be very useful for rural communities to record the location, and the value, of traditional lands and resources. Many indigenous communities now use maps to document and archive aspects of traditional knowledge, to negotiate with commercial operators and development agencies, and to support their case in territorial disputes. Farmers can also use maps in land-use planning and natural resource management.

Although there are many advantages to increased access to mapping technologies, there are also some important risks. There are instances where, after the locations of traditional burial grounds were been mapped and published online, the graves were then vandalized. There are other ethical issues concerning where information about a community is recorded and made public without consent from the community, and where the mapping of indigenous plant and animal resources can lead to poaching and theft.

At a major conference held in Kenya in 2005, called Mapping for Change, international experts from 45 countries expressed their concerns about the possibility of malpractice by individuals or organizations using geographic technology in community-based mapping projects. Many initiatives may set out with the best of intentions to record a community’s boundaries, resources and infrastructure without realizing that the information they gather could lead to local knowledge being abused or misused.


As a consequence of the issues raised at this and subsequent events, CTA brought together a group of more than 40 specialists from a number of disciplines ranging from social anthropology and geographic information technologies, to social geography and communication, to develop a training kit on ‘participatory spatial information management and communication’. The developers hope the kit will give organizations a detailed set of guidelines to improve the process of their participatory mapping work, and ensure the interests and resources of the communities are protected.

The training kit is made up of 15 modules, each of which covers a specific topic, including community groundwork and processes, project structuring and initial reconnaissance, and procedures to go through to choose the appropriate participatory mapping method. The kit also covers documentation and networking processes, communication and advocacy. The modules are broken up into units, which represent a single training session.

The project team designed the kit to make it easy for trainers to adapt the course and choose which elements would best suit the needs of their trainees. Each module is made up of components; a comprehensive collection of training material for the trainer, including trainee handouts, PowerPoint presentations, video and photo archives, and sample case studies. The trainer can decide which documents are needed and can give them to trainees as printed sheets or to burn onto a CD. Taught on a daily basis, a typical course would last from 10 days to three weeks. Some sections, however, are considered too important to be left out, such as the module on attitudes, behaviours and ethics.

‘There are some key steps which have to be covered,’ says Giacomo Rambaldi, a senior programme coordinator at CTA. ‘One example is that before starting any community mapping process, an organization or individual should obtain prior consent from a fair representation of the community to implement a project having a mapping component.

‘Good mapping practice starts with thinking about how to approach the community,’ he adds. ‘The organization involved has to think about details like how to pay respect to traditional leaders, through to how to assist local communities to communicate using a map, how to build a network and use maps to convey a message. The kit also includes information on how to use maps in court cases or to assist in negotiations with government agencies or the private sector.’

The kit is likely to be most useful to trainers working with organizations that are already committed to using PGIS (participatory geographic information systems). Anyone applying community mapping techniques in their work would benefit from following the curriculum. The developers hope that widespread use of the kit will ensure that communities are fully involved and have control over community-based efforts to document and communicate spatial information abouttheir area.


‘The map is not the only output,’ explains Rambaldi. ‘Mapping is part of a bigger process involving learning, awareness raising, and stimulating community cohesion. It has to be done carefully, looking at the long-term consequences and with respect to the people who have the knowledge. It should not be done in an extractive way, where you just get the information and walk away. Participatory mapping activities should be demand-driven, as far as possible, and not imposed or dictated by vested interests.’

When carried out with careful planning and consideration, the mapping process can help communities regain control of decisions and developments affecting their area. Community-based mapping methods have proven to be an effective aid in negotiations. There are also many cases where communities were able to settle land tenure issues based on maps produced using participatory methods. Rather than having a top-down approach where donor agencies or government offices impose their decisions, all parties have access to the same information and can, hopefully, come up with win-win solutions.

‘A map always carries some bias,’ says Rambaldi. ‘There is no absolute truth in a map. Maps always highlight the perspective of the person who produced the map. A government could, for example, decide to build a dam. If the project engineers produce the maps of the catchment area in their offices, they will look very different from the maps produced by a community residing in the same location. The engineers might concentrate on information obtained from satellite images, government statistics, whereas the community might emphasize the traditional burial grounds, sacred areas or important forest resources upon which their livelihoods depend. Participatory maps are often “counter maps”, maps which present a different perspective. It may be different from the official version but it remains a valid perspective.’

Despite the differences which can be presented on maps, they have been very successful in resolving territorial disputes by bringing together representatives from both sides of an argument. ‘There are conflict management methods where two parties are encouraged to discuss their concerns using a map,’ adds Rambaldi. ‘The fact that they focus their attention on the map helps to dissipate energy since they are not forced to have eye contact; they are concentrating on the map. The map helps to establish the base for dialogue. It puts the parties at the same level in terms of access to information because what is on the map is viewable and readable by both parties.’

While it was the rapid spread of geographic applications that triggered the development of the training kit, cutting-edge technologies are not essential to the process of community map making. The kit is intended to help people in rural communities who do not necessarily have access to the internet or a stable electricity supply. The 15 modules contain information on a range of methodologies which can be applied to different settings and conditions, covering a range of skills and literacy.

The training kit on participatory spatial information management and communication will be available in DVD format from September 2010, initially in English and Spanish, with French and Portuguese versions being developed later. The DVD will be available via CTA’s publication distribution service and its online publication catalogue. The content of the kit will be made available online as well.

‘The objective is the spread of good practice in the context of development, human rights, natural resource management, spatial planning, anywhere in fact where maps are involved,’ says Rambaldi. ‘There is no blueprint approach to making a participatory map; it depends on the purpose of the map, on available resources and many other variables. What is important is that the process and the product meet the purpose. There are many ways to achieve that and many trajectories to get to the same result – all of which are outlined in the kit, which will then be used, hopefully, to achieve good practice in processes involving community-based map making.’


Giacomo Rambaldi ( rambaldi@cta.int) is a senior programme coordinator at CTA (the Technical Centre of Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU) www.cta.int

Related resources:

ICT Update special issue on participatory GIS
PGIS initiatives run by CTA
Training Kit on Participatory Spatial Information Management and Communication
http://pgis-tk.cta.int (available from September 2010)
Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development
CTA publications catalogue

29 April 2010

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)