Before undertaking a map-making project in the Mindanao region in the southern Philippines, Yutaka Kokufu of major Japanese surveying firm PASCO Corp. had to insure his workers' safety.
He visited the stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which waged an armed struggle with the government until the signing of a ceasefire agreement in 2003, to gain its cooperation for the surveys.
"A bunch of them were lined up around the building holding rifles, so it was far from a comfortable situation," Kokufu says.
The map-making initiative is currently under way in the Mindanao region for the first time in 60 years. The project is being supported by Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) funding from the Japanese government. Kokufu, 57, the project's leader, is a specialist who has been almost exclusively involved in map-making initiatives in developing countries since the 1980s.
The objective of the map-making project is to bring about peace in the region, and there is an awareness that all their efforts would go to waste if it was to be regarded as an intrusion by the central government.
"The roots of the conflict lie not so much in religion and ideology, but in poverty," says National Mapping and Resource Information Authority administrator Peter Tiangco. "If the region prospers, it will lead to peace. That's impossible to achieve with a 60-year-old map, but if an up-to-date and accurate map can be created, development projects will come to Mindanao, which is far from the nation's capital."
At the beginning of May, Kokufu and seven others gathered in a room at the headquarters of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), a government agency, in Davao, the largest city in the Mindanao region.
MinDA official Charlita Escano expressed concern. "What should we do about villages where the headman refuses us entry?"
Kokufu replied. "We'll consult with the relevant authorities, but it's best not to cause trouble by forcing our way in."
The object of this meeting was to figure out how to gain final confirmation for their map from local authorities.
Mindanao is comprised of more than 4,000 islands and accounts for one-third of the Philippines' overall land mass, and one-quarter of its population. It has untapped potential for development of its mineral resources, agriculture and fisheries, but for more than 40 years here the central government has been at odds with Islamic organizations seeking secession or independence. Aerial surveys have not been possible, and the only available map was made by the United States in the 1950s.
The current map-making project is utilizing images taken by the Japanese land observing satellite DAICHI. Its resolution enables it to photograph the Earth's surface to an accuracy of 2.5 meters square, so it can detect the presence of buildings. However, how can we tell whether a building is a church, or a mosque, or a school, or a government office? Accurate map-making ideally involves on-the-ground surveying, with the cooperation of local authorities.
That being said, Kokufu avoids any activity that would infringe on the sovereignty of local people. Even in areas that take a cooperative stance, he sends staff who are originally from the Mindanao region to carry out field surveys. Before entering the territory controlled by the MILF, he sent the names, number and mugshots of surveyors to the ceasefire committee that was jointly formed by the government and the MILF.
From the beginning of this year, Kokufu's team has distributed its map to local authorities for them to double-check place names and other details. This is another means of gaining local approval. The map is scheduled to be completed in November, when it will be handed over to the Philippine government in both digital data and printed form.
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The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which administers Japan's overseas development assistance program, has funded 73 map-making projects in developing countries since 1971. Japan's surveying and mapping technology is well-regarded internationally, and there are currently seven projects under way in Africa and elsewhere.
"In the past, wide area maps and detailed city maps were our main focus in order to respond to economic development and urban problems," says Akihito Sanjo, director of JICA's Peace Building and Urban and Regional Development Division 1. "However, since around the year 2000, we shifted that focus to peace building and reconstruction assistance."
The resolution of satellite imaging has improved and it has also become more affordable, which has provided a boost to map-making initiatives in war-torn areas over which aircraft cannot be flown.
Even so, war zones present other problems. For a map-making project in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2007, local authorities adamantly demanded that they retain the copyright for the map. This was the first-ever case in which JICA relinquished the copyright for a map that was created through one of its own projects.
"We were only told to leave out a single location in the map that was thought to be a prison," says the project's overall manager, Akira Nishimura, 62, of surveying company Kokusai Kogyo. "However, latitudes and longitudes were deleted from the map we printed out as a sample, presumably because they provided the coordinates of embassies and government institutions."
Since modern times, maps have also functioned as evidence of countries' domination of other regions. That trait, and the pursuit of greater user-friendliness in order to utilize maps more effectively, remain somewhat incompatible to this day.
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