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ClearWater: A Map With a Story to Tell

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, March 31 2014

The ClearWater mapping project shows the environmental damage to the region and also tells the story of the local communities.

Last week, the nonprofit ClearWater, in partnership with the human rights and technology organization Digital Democracy, launched a new type of online mapping project that ventures into the realm of digital storytelling. The ClearWater map not only shows the scale of the water pollution in the Amazon of northern Ecuador, but also highlights the much more pressing, human side of environmental damage. The newly designed map guides users through stories from the five different indigenous tribes who have been working with ClearWater to build rainwater collection systems to use in lieu of their polluted water sources.

Digital Democracy's program director Gregor MacLennan, who also developed the mapping site, was visiting Ecuador’s northern Amazon region when he met an indigenous Kichwan man who lived in the village of Rumipamba. Near the man's home, just across the road from the oil pipelines, was a pond. “And if you stuck a stick to the pond, oil would come to the surface,” says MacLennan. “You could see gas flares above the treetops. The stream smelt like oil and gasoline.”

With no other option, the man and his family bathed and even drank this water. He and others among the five different indigenous communities in the region have struggled with health problems, and some have even died. Clear Water's Ecuadorian team founder and nationalities coordinator, Emergildo Criollo, lost his two daughters to water-related ailments.

The map not only shows where rainwater collection systems have been built, but tells through pop-ups, the stories of the communities that built them, how they have been impacted by water pollution and allows them to update the maps by inputting data through a simple Google spreadsheet that they have been trained to use. Some of the blog entries are written by the local communities and have been translated into English.

Even though the indigenous communities in the region have filed a lawsuit against the American oil company Texaco (formerly Chevron) whom they claim has contaminated the water, the case has languished in court for about 20 years. The communities began working with ClearWater to build rain water collection systems because even though they will eventually need a longer term and most likely more costly solution for clean water, they cannot wait the years it will take to reach a court settlement.

For these particular communities, the ClearWater mapping project is the first time that they have been able to tell their stories for an international community, online. Emily Jacobi, the founder of Digital Democracy, explains that these communities have also been "trained to write short blogs" and in this sense, "on how to do community journalism."

In the future, Digital Democracy hopes to create a template for this type of map-based story telling platform and release it on Github.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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