Indigenous communities have been involved in participatory mapping projects to protect their territories and manage their resources for decades. However, while tremendous advances have been achieved in many settings, the use of maps by indigenous peoples is very uneven. Here we present the case of a team of university researchers, indigenous students, and local investigators who used a participatory approach to map cultural landscapes and mature forest cover in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé of Panama. This article examines the success and limitations of efforts to empower indigenous people in the region to use mapping tools for conservation and resource management. The project, while it provides a useful example of how to build a participatory research team to produce maps that better reflect indigenous points of view, fell short of empowering indigenous authorities to use geographic tools to manage their territories. This is due mainly to the lack of administrative capacity needed to make use of geospatial information. We argue that cartographers involved in participatory projects, while typically attentive to the problems of marginalization, need to pay more attention to the broader socioeconomic contexts of their work and to redouble their efforts to respond to the challenges of the digital divide, which is a symptom of broader socioeconomic and political inequalities stemming from the legacies of colonialism.

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Keywords Empowerment, Forest conservation, Indigenous peoples, Panama, Participatory mapping
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Journal Cartographica
Smith, D, Ibáñez, A. (Alicia), & Herrera, F. (Francisco). (2017). The importance of context: Assessing the benefits and limitations of participatory mapping for empowering indigenous communities in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama. Cartographica, 52(1), 49–62. doi:10.3138/cart.52.1.3574