(Top image: Chepkitale Indigenous’ Peoples Development Project mapper Lilian Koriongi offering a training session on Mapeo, using training tapestries first used by partners in Peru. Photo by Rudo Kemper)
A look back at the last 12 months
The past year has been one of extremes. As the shape of the pandemic shifted, and the realities of the climate crisis became ever more apparent, the Digital Democracy team witnessed both inspiring victories by frontline earth defenders and tragic attacks against them.
Every year, an increasing number environmental defenders around the world lose their lives. This year we felt it acutely, as partners of ours in at least five countries have experienced or been threatened with violence. In early June, Bruno Pereia was murdered together with journalist Dom Phillips in the Brazilian Amazon. Bruno was an Indigenous expert and ally in the struggle for Indigenous rights who had been working with Univaja. We had been supporting Bruno & the Univaja team to use Mapeo to document illegal activity in the Javari River Valley, work that continues even after the tragic loss of Bruno.
We’ve also experienced great hopefulness and inspiration from our partner communities and organizations. This year, an Indigenous uprising and the hard work of partners Alianza Ceibo and Amazon Frontlines led to a precedent-setting ruling by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court that Indigenous Peoples have the right to final decision-making over extractive projects that affect their lands, and a temporary ban on new oil and mining concessions. Meanwhile our partners the Ogiek of Mount Elgon achieved an important victory in a larger, ongoing court case against the unconstitutional seizure of a part of their ancestral lands. Finally, our dear friends and A’i Cofan Indigenous leaders Alexandra Narvaez and Alex Lucitante were named winners of the Goldman Environmental prize.
As we end the year, we’re reminded that our work is part of much larger trends. From the enormous stakes of the Brazilian election and political turbulance in Peru to the uncertainty over whether recent climate talks will result in real action, the work we do is part of a much broader network of people and organizations working for a just and habitable world for future generations. As our team has grown, here are five areas where we focused our efforts in 2022:
- Program growth – expanding partnerships, access, and a return to in-person trainings
We have an increasing number of partners, and in 2022 supported over 30 partner-led projects in 15 countries using technology for Indigenous land sovereignty and environmental justice. Most of this support continued to be virtual, but we also returned to northern Peru for a large training with long-time partners Puinamudt, who are using Mapeo across three river basins to monitor oil spills. After two years of virtual support, we traveled to Kenya for the first time to support the Chepkitale Indigenous’ Peoples Development Project (CIPDP) with their ongoing mapping work and a gathering of Indigenous women from the region. If you want to be inspired about the importance of this work, check out these videos: “Securing Indigenous Rights through innovative mapping technology” and “How the Ogiek of Kenya are using mapping to advocate for their land rights.”
We’ve also entered phase two of the Earth Defenders Toolkit, and this year focused on content creation – with more launching in early 2023 – and translation. The resource is now available in 8 languages. Next year, we’ll host the first in-person gathering for the Earth Defenders Toolkit.
- Increase the accessibility and usability of technological tools for earth defenders
We’ve made major tool improvements to our core products Mapeo and Terrastories, which we continue to cobuild in partnership with Indigenous organizations. We’re preparing a major refactor for Mapeo in early 2023 which will provide the foundation for features often requested by partners, including the ability to record GPS tracks, audio and video.
This fall, together with the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Forest Peoples Programme, we launched Mapeo for ICCAs to help Indigenous peoples and local communities map the territories and areas they are conserving, on their own terms.
- Continued to prioritize the autonomy of our partners
One of our core values is the Self Determination and Autonomy of our partners, and this embeds everything we do, from incorporating the concept of Indigenous data sovereignty into our tools, to our Train the Trainers’ approach. We spent time this year making comprehensive support material guides for Mapeo and Terrastories, to enable communities around the world to customize and use these tools independently. To make it easier for communities to get started with Mapeo (or any tool using icons), we also launched an Icon Generator tool.
As our requests for partnerships have grown, we want to center the expertise of our existing local partners. This year we launched an Indigenous Tech Fellowship Program, with a pilot focused on peer-learning between community partners in southern and northern Peru, and started hiring in-country personnel to create local networks of support.
We’re also proud to continue to serve as the US-based fiscal sponsor for Native Land Digital, which serves as a critical resource for people all over the world to learn more about Indigenous lands and territories.
- Internal commitment to distributing power & taking care of our team for the long-haul
We’re ending the year with a team of 19 people (both full and part time) spread across 8 countries and 3 continents. As our team grows we are working to address how we make decisions and distribute power internally, with a goal of ever improving our internal policies and processes to match our values of equity and democratic decision-making. This spring our board of directors approved a policy for 4-day workweek and a transparent payscale, and we’re doing internal work to address issues of equity, accountability and safer spaces within our increasingly diverse team. Stay tuned in January for exciting news about how we’re further democratizing our leadership structures.
- Deepening our philanthropic partnerships in order to fulfill our mission
Like many young organizations, we’ve had our share of ups and downs. I remember all too vividly the times when we have not known whether we might make it into the new year. Over the past two years, we’ve been able to grow and diversify our funding partners, and it is thanks to the support of our funding partners, along with individual donors, that our work is possible. In 2022 we’ve been grateful for renewed support from Good Energies Foundation, Hivos, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Nia Tero, One Earth and Open Technology Fund. We received support for the first time from the Sall Family Foundation and the Ronald W. Naito Foundation, both of which renewed their support for 2023. We were honored to receive first-time support from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums, to be MIT Solve recipients, and to be part of the Mozilla Data Futures Lab 2022 Cohort, and to receive a 3-year grant from the Skoll Foundation.
To avert the worst outcomes of climate chaos and environmental threats around the planet, the next few years are truly an all-hands-on-deck moment. Every day we are inspired by the stories of our local partners who are living the realities of environmental threats, and are doing the critical work of defending local ecosystems.
At our in-person retreat in June – the first since 2019 – we took some time to get real with ourselves – at this moment in time, with the threats facing the planet, is this the most impactful work we can be doing? The answer – based on countless conversations with partners, and the firsthand experience of being with our partners in the field – was a resounding yes. There’s still much to do, and improve upon, but we’re clear that both our approach and our tools are of real service to communities around the world who are on the frontlines of protecting the planet for future generations.
Next November, Digital Democracy will turn 15. In my 14 years of being part of the Digital Democracy team, our work has never felt as impactful, or more urgent. As an ally organization, our top priority will always be directing resources to our local partners. But we also know that our work plays a critical role in the broader ecosystem, by cobuilding the tools that earth defender communities apply to achieve real victories. If you’re inspired by our accomplishments in 2022, and would like to see our work continue to grow in the new year, please donate to help make our continued work possible.