Mapping Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa, with its low levels of economic development, is a continent exceedingly vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. Repeated climate shocks and continual pressures on natural resources can keep struggling communities on this continent locked into poverty traps for decades. In the snapshot of the Gapminder chart below, the dark blue dots represent sub-Saharan African countries. It is readily evident that Africa lags behind every other continent on the globe in both life expectancy and GDP (only Afghanistan—the sole light blue dot in the bottom mix—ranks as poorly as many African nations. Climate change will only compound development challenges in Africa.

“The impact of climate change will fall
disproportionately on the world’s poorest
countries, many of them here in Africa.
Poor people already live on the front lines of
pollution, disaster, and the degradation of
resources and land. For them, adaptation
is a matter of sheer survival.”

- Kofi Annan

Approximately 70% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa depends on small-scale, rain-fed agriculture. One projection of future climate change is that dry places will get drier and wet places will get wetter, putting Africans at an even greater risk as they try to cope with more extreme weather patterns. Climate risk and natural resource management—and the meaningful communication of environmental information—will play an increasingly important role in helping sub-Saharan Africa countries develop their economies in the face of a changing environment. In tandem with development initiatives, how might communication of environmental information, and mapping technologies in particular, enhance the resiliency of African communities? (1)

Examples of Mapping in Africa
GLOBAL WARMING: Early Warning Signs ( )
The Climate Hot Map, backed by the World Resources Institute, illustrates local impacts of climate change around the globe and was created with the intent to show the increasing frequency of climate-related hazards around the globe. The map categorizes impacts in two ways: as “fingerprints,” indicated by yellow icons, which are “direct manifestations of a widespread and long-term trend toward warmer global temperatures as already documented and projected to continue;” and as “harbingers,” indicated by red icons, which “foreshadow the types of impacts likely to become more frequent and widespread with continued warming.” These latter consequences, the website states, cannot be said to be conclusively linked to climate change at this time. Fingerprints include heat waves, periods of unusually warm weather, ocean warming, sea-level rise, coastal flooding, glaciers melting, Arctic and Antarctic warming. Harbingers include spreading disease, earlier spring arrival, plant and animal range shifts and population changes, coral reef bleaching, downpours, heavy snowfalls, flooding, droughts and fires.

This website is clear in design, neutral in tone and correctly points out that all impacts cannot be assumed to be conclusively linked to climate change. In the “Selection Criteria” section, it explicitly states that environmental phenomena are complex and often caused by multiple, interacting factors. This is a very important distinction as any extreme event can rightly or wrongly be attributed to climate change. In addition, the site provides references to peer-reviewed articles to back up each entry on the map. Unfortunately, as of December 2009, many of the references have dead links.

In comparing Africa and other developing nations on this map with developed countries, it becomes clear that there is far less data on developing regions of the world, which lie primarily in the Southern Hemisphere. This speaks to a real need for increased mapping of climate change indicators in these regions. Furthermore, in terms of participatory projects, there is little to no mapping of Africa by its citizens because Internet penetration is so low. Most participatory mapping projects in Africa happen off-line, as in the following two examples.

The Baka Pygmies in Cameroon
The Baka Pygmies have lived in the dense tropic forests of the Congo basin for thousands of years. These forests are a “living repository of their culture. It gives them food, medicine and shelter.”(2) Over the past century, the Baka Pygmies have struggled for survival as neighboring groups looking for farmlands and the global demand for tropical woods threaten the integrity of these forests. With the support of the Cameroon government, the UK-based software company Helveta, Forest People’s Programme, the Cameroonian group Centre for Environment and Development and under the guidance of Dr. Jerome Lewis at the University College London, the Pygmies are beginning to use hand-held GPS computers to document the “exact location of their hunting grounds, sacred trees and important rivers.”(3) The data collected by the Pygmies will then be used by the Cameroon government to monitor the activities of logging companies in the area.
For more information, view the BBC article: GPS Helps Pygmies Defend Forest

3D Modeling Among Ogiek Indigenous Groups in Kenya
The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in decision-making has expanded rapidly in the past several years. Participatory GIS (PGIS) is a relatively new means for managing local resources. It is essentially a mapping process by which local stakeholders can participate in public planning. According to the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), PGIS “combines a range of geo-spatial information management tools and methods such as sketch maps, Participatory 3D Models (P3DM), aerial photographs, satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to represent peoples’ spatial knowledge in the forms of virtual or physical, 2 or 3 dimensional maps used as interactive vehicles for spatial learning, discussion, information exchange, analysis, decision making and advocacy.”(4)

In 2005, the NGO Environmental Regional Mapping and Information Systems in Africa (ERMIS-Africa) assisted 21 Ogiek clans in Kenya in using aerial orthophotomaps to “identify ancestral landmarks and delineate the clans’ territorial boundaries.”(5) Areas were divided into main family and natural resource management units and data was transposed into a geographic information system (GIS). The Ogieks adopted the user-friendly participatory 3D modeling (P3DM) system to build out their maps; this system encourages grassroots participation in geographic decision-making, integrating local knowledge and spatial information in relation to resource use and land tenure.

In August 2006, the Ogiek people began to build a 3D model of their ancestral lands. Ogiek people—formerly one of the larger hunter-gatherer communities in Eastern African—inhabit the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya, the largest block of closed-canopy forest in Eastern Africa. These forests provide upper catchments of the many rivers that feed major lakes in the region, including Lake Victoria. Since the delineation of the forests’ boundaries in 1987, large tracts of “forests have been cleared outside the boundaries and more recently severe encroachments have taken place inside the forest boundaries leading to a dramatic loss of forest cover, and to the destruction of large forest ecosystems.”(6) In addition, such encroachments have severe impacts on the livelihoods and cultures of the forests’ indigenous communities.

In addition to the threats to their natural resources, Ogiek elders stated younger people are losing knowledge of their own culture and saw this mapping process as a way to pass on their heritage to the next generations. To create the 3D model, school children were enlisted to construct a blank, scaled 3D model (based on topographic map sheets), which elders from various clans then fleshed out in shifts. The elders decided to map out the landscape as it existed in 1920 before missionaries and foresters arrived, drawing upon their own as well as inherited memories of the landscapes of that period.

It took three days of intense discussion among the clans to define the terms for the map legend. Men and women, each holders of distinct areas of knowledge, contributed separately. Women “displayed deep knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses, whereas men were more conversant with game and beehives distribution, and types of soil.”(7) Examples of items in the legend’s final version included “makeshift hut,” “a place where elders stay,” “boundary tree,” “sacred tree,” “death tree,” “initiates wash place,” and “logging company.” While discussing the legend, the clans deliberated on issues of privacy and intellectual property and in the end, chose to omit certain medicinal plants from the legend. Despite the fact that the Ogieks have not been active hunter-gatherers for more than two decades, the mapping process revealed that the elder Ogieks still held “predictive hunting and gathering” (8) conceptual frameworks in that they mapped their territories in terms of native species, landmarks and topographical references.

For the Ogiek people, the primary goal of the exercise was to transfer knowledge to the next generation. The 3D mapmaking stimulated community discussion, cooperation and re-discovery and re-articulation of the community’s cultural heritage and engaged people of all ages in the process. The map-making process may have the power to inspire younger Ogiek to value the knowledge of the elders and become engaged in helping to protect Kenya’s highly threatened natural heritage. The Mau Forest Complex, for example, is so damaged that the highland swamps are now drying out and impacting Lake Nakuru and the Mara River that runs across the Maasai Mara National Park. Hunter-gatherer societies possess intimate knowledge about the ecology of their home territories, which has implications for environmental and cultural preservation practices. Furthermore, the Participatory 3D Modeling method allows people normally shut out of technological advancement to employ technological tools such as GIS to aid in such conservation practices.

A selection of statements written by the elders at the end of the exercise included:
“I felt overwhelmed to see it [our land] brought back.”
“I learned that we are lost and need to unite ourselves.”
“I felt proud of my clan territory being marked out and also the entire community land.”
“I discovered that we have potentiality of managing of our rivers and plant trees.”
“I discovered that 3D Model help solving dispute/conflicts.”
“I feel that these maps can be used by Ogiek people to enhance their land legal issues.”

After learning about the results of this mapping exercise, UNESCO and the Africa Conservation Foundation have expressed interest in helping the Ogiek community explore how the Participatory 3D Modeling process can be used to promote sustainable development education. Additionally, the National Water Service/Management Board have expressed interest in using the P3DM process for increasing participatory involvement in watershed management.

Increasingly, PGIS applications are moving online which raises questions as to how communities with little access to the Internet will benefit from this development. Furthermore, when mapping processes move to computers and the Internet, will the lively, intergenerational, in-person cooperation that took place among the Ogieks in building their 3D model be lost?

Implications for Climate Change Mapping
The two off-line mapping projects mentioned here have implications for mapping climate change. Both the Baka Pygmies and members of the Ogiek tribes hold a direct knowledge of the natural resources in their landscapes. Scientists wanting a better understanding of the more subtle impacts of climate change to various ecosystems might consider partnerships with groups like the Bakas and Ogieks. Considering the fact that there is less information on climate change impacts in Southern hemisphere countries, scientists and NGOs might do well to work with indigenous groups to build out their knowledge of this part of the world.

Additional Information on PGIS
Definitions of PGIS: (theory and practice of PGIS) (Thesis written by Masters of Science student Janet N. Cothran titled "From Geography to Mass Communications: A View of Participatory GIS Through the Lens of McLuhan." An interesting analysis of the Ogiek project using the McLuhan tetrad system.)

2005 conference in Nairobi Kenya. Brought experts in participatory GIS and community mapping together:

Offline mapping of Africa (World Resources Institute)
Source: BBC

Ogiek elders fleshing out 3D model (Source: Rambaldi)

The map legend (Source: Rambaldi)

1. Hellmuth, M.E., Moorhead, A., Thomson, M.C., and Williams, J. (eds) 2007. Climate Risk Management in Africa: Learning from Practice. International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Columbia University, New York, USA.
2. Keane, Fergal. “GPS helps Pygmies defend forest.” BBC News. 30 January 2008.
3. Keane
6. Rambaldi, G., Muchemi, J., Crawhall, N., & Monaci, L. (2007). Through the eyes of hunter-gatherers: participatory 3D modeling among Ogiek indigenous peoples in Kenya. SAGE Publications, 23(2/3), 113-128. Retrieved December 5, 2009 from
7. Rambaldi et al.
8. Rambaldi et al.