25 Years Ago at National Geographic

Twenty-five years ago this month, I was working for the National Geographic Society (NGS) developing the prototype for a digital photographic archive for the Society’s Image Collection. It was incurring significant expenses and the President of NGS asked me to develop a business plan to justify the costs. This blog consists of portions of the document that I submitted.

In 2015, National Geographic sold their magazines, maps, books and other media assets to 21 Century Fox for 725 million dollars. As the Washington Post reported at the time, “Like many print publications, National Geographic has been hurt by the onset of the digital era, which has put it on a slow trajectory toward extinction.” In 2018, Fox sold the National Geographic holdings, among others, to Disney for 52 billion dollars.

To make this document shorter and more relevant, I have eliminated most of the Cost/Saving paragraphs of the Business Plan. I did include them in Phase 4, Phase 11 and Phase 20 to give readers an idea of the thought behind each phase. Also, for clarification I have included comments (in italics) that were not part of the original document.

As a point of reference, the World Wide Web was two years old in 1995.


Business plan for the Digital Image Archive                              

May 31, 1995

The following is a compilation of the costs and savings involved in designing and implementing a digital archive for the National Geographic Society. If this archive is considered to be the centerpiece of a business that will capture information digitally, work in a digital environment, and distribute content digitally, then we must not think of it only as a system that will streamline our existing archive. We must instead reexamine the core process to determine what will be necessary in a digital world, and what will be irrelevant. Only then can we begin to understand the real benefits and savings of building such an archive.

This plan organizes the growth of a digital National Geographic Society into phases. Management direction is needed for these phases to become enterprise-wide objectives.

Listed below, they are projected over a time period of several years. Assumptions are made about emerging technology, corporate and consumer behavior, new markets, etc. These, as well as the chronology of the phases, will change. This document is only one person’s view of how the Society might respond to the digital world. Perhaps it is a starting point for a discussion concerning the reorganization of our business to take full advantage of digital.

Phase 1

Development of prototype photographic digital archive

(Note: Underway at the time.)

Phase 2

Establishment of the NGS digital archive

(Note: Image Collection server on line in 1996, Full IBM digital archive in 2003)

Phase 3

Rights to NGS-produced materials secured

(Note: This would entail developing a robust rights management system)

Phase 4

Establishment of NGS on-line services (Web site)

(Note: nationalgeographic.com launched in 1997)

Costs Web server and related charges personnel needed to maintain web, editorial team needed for electronic products, marketing unit required, TCP/IP and network charges, database management.

Savings Distribution of some paper products eliminated, postage costs down, tracking of customers possible, content can be scalable, interactive commodity-based pricing, print product manufacturing positions eliminated.

Phase 5

Research and Exploration Journal on-line as first electronic publication

(Note: This publication was a juried scholarly journal. It folded because of costs with no thought of a digital version.)

Phase 6

Still images from TV, books, World and Traveler added to digital archive

(Note: National Geographic domestic TV channel launched in 2001!)

Phase 7

Photo editing for print products becomes partially digital, using scanned analog material

Phase 8

Manufacturing of print products becomes totally digital

(Note: Meaning digital design, production and plate-making before the analog press run)

Phase 9

Digital cartography database of globe completed

(Note: At the time, a prototype was being developed.)

Phase 10

Linking cartography database to digital archive

(Note: Never implemented. Think Google Maps.)

Phase 11

Expansion of the on-line bandwidth. Wireless capability appears

Costs Media server requirements, object-oriented data bases necessary, project teams need the ability to edit on the fly, editorial effort increases, video editing and production personnel required.

Savings Consumers begin to look to on-line as a primary source of information, interactivity is commonplace, consumers will rely on NGS as geography lynchpin, more NGS products on-line.

Phase 12

Marketing and billing databases are directly linked to products and services and to the transactional database in the digital archive

Phase 13

Geographic educational materials and products are produced, distributed, and billed digitally

Phase 14

Replacement of film cameras with digital cameras

 Phase 15

Photo editing becomes completely digital

 Phase 16

Digital environment for video

(Note: Digital video cameras need massive bandwidth to enable complete digital capture.)

Phase 17

Interactive television

(Note: Think Zoom)

 Phase 18

Links from digital video archive to other NGS digital archives

Phase 19

Remote digital video studios established

(Note: Think YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, etc,)

Phase 20

Mobile interactive digital tools become commonplace

Costs  Quest to upgrade of the quality of “instant” content, addition of intelligent editing tools to economize capture techniques and entertainment needs.

Savings Customers use personal digital assistants (apps) to receive most of their daily information and supply instant, accurate information about all facets of our planet. NGS establishes deep loyalty with customers based on content, attentiveness and astute marketing.

Update on My Daily Postings

Bike Shadow in Bordeaux, France


Three years. That is the timeframe for my visual diary.

As my followers on this website, or on my Twitter and Facebook know, every day current images are posted. The camera in my mobile phone makes this possible, as now I always have a camera at my side. As has been stated many times, your best camera is the one you have with you.

For the past year or so, I have been trying to theme my posts. The pictures have become less scattershot and, once I decide on the theme, it allows me to explore the chosen subject with a little more depth – close ups, different angles, more subtleness, etc.

The drawbacks of the camera in the phone are these:

1) A slight delay before the “shutter” goes off. One must anticipate the correct moment.

2) Cell phone cameras use the ISO (rendering the sensor more or less sensitive to light) to determine exposure. The aperture (f stop) is always the same – f stop 2.2. This does not allow for panning or selective focus. On a cell phone, the selective focus is done using software, and the camera, not you, does the selection.

3) The zoom function is digital, meaning that it is a crop of the image as the sensor captures it. As you zoom in, the image deteriorates. Some cell phones have two cameras to give you more quality with a “longer” lens. On iPhones, the second lens is only 52mm, the primary is 28mm. I rarely zoom more than 3X because of the loss of image quality.

4) This brings me to the lack of long lenses on the cell phones. There are clip-ons and apps that run an add on camera where you use the phone screen as the viewfinder, but both are inadequate and defeat the purpose of the phone-camera. When I am off to shoot wildlife or sailboats and know I will need longer lenses, I take a camera that has those features.

5) The highlights of images taken with mobile cameras tend to blow out. A digital sensor will simply “clip” at a certain point, rendering any luminance values that exceed it’s dynamic range as pure white. This is called highlight rolloff.  HDR (High Dynamic Range) settings help this problem, but it is a known issue with all digital cameras. Many, many more pixels are needed to record the highlights than the shadows. And the sensor capture on most mobile phone cameras is small compared to cameras.

Will the camera phones get better? I recall an interview with Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, where he said that the camera is the most used app on the phone and that there are 80 engineers (at that time) working on the camera. So yes. Probably the sensor will capture more pixels (better highlights), creation of software to minimize noise, more work on the delay factor, etc. In my view, digital zooms will remain an issue.

The pervasive use of mobile phone cameras has helped photographers photograph people. Today, most people have their picture taken on a daily basis, and showing up with a camera does not freak them out. The downside is that the glut of images that amateurs take has produced some excellent shots because “f2.2 and be there” gives them a 7/24 opportunity to be in front of some amazing situations. This lowers the monetary value of photography, as most amateurs are not in it for the money (they have real jobs), but are happy to see their pictures used, as it strokes their ego.

So how does this affect my daily visual diary? It doesn’t. As my partner says, “Photography is in Bob’s DNA.” She’s right!



Taking Photography Workshops to Improve Your Skills

November 2016

AMC Summer Workshop, White Mountains - Photo by Steve Fabricius

AMC Summer Workshop, White Mountains – Photo by Steve Fabricius

I have given over 100 talks and served at many workshops as a staffer or the director. As the director, my workshops have ranged from a weekend at the Appalachian Mountain Club facility in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to a two week Photo Safari in Tanzania.

This memo will help determine which is the best workshop experience for you.

< Chesapeake City, MD Workshop Through Nat Geo Eyes

Chesapeake City, MD Workshop
Through “Nat Geo Eyes”

Make sure that the photographic workshop that you are signing up for is centered on photography, and is not simply a tour that features photography. This means that there will be an on-site instructor who will be guiding you during your efforts.

One way to tell if this will be occurring is by examining the itinerary. If you will be out at dawn and stay through twilight (the golden hours), you are on the right track. If the workshop includes lunches at 3 star Michelin restaurants, you might look elsewhere.
Fieldwork is essential. A classroom-styled workshop won’t cut it unless it is about a computer application. You should look for workshops that combine shooting with critiques of your work – real-time examinations – on a large screen – of what you are photographing during the workshop.

Leopard in Baobab Tree - Tanzania Safari PhotoWorkshop

Leopard in Baobab Tree – Tanzania Safari PhotoWorkshop

Research the instructor. Would you like to emulate her style of photography? What is their teaching experience? This is more important than the location of the workshop. Are you taking the course to learn or is it just to have the instructor take you to his favorite spots? Look up testimonials from previous attendees, but realize that most instructors won’t publish the unfavorable ones.

At most workshops, the instructor is tied to an organization that coordinates the logistics. This includes payments, indemnities, finding guides and outfitters, transportation, etc. Major brands tout their abilities to deliver. Sometimes this just means that they get a cut for their name and marketing while local tour companies do all the work. You’ll pay both.

River Taxi, Singapore Workshop - Photo by Tony Three

River Taxi, Singapore Workshop – Photo by Tony Three

Look for workshops that have 10 clients or fewer per instructor. You are looking for personalized instruction and more than ten workshoppers will diminish the experience. Many workshop leaders line up their students (using tripods) to train their cameras on a subject like an old mill. Everyone gets the same shot. See if you can find a workshop where you determine the subject matter and the instructor helps you to achieve the photographic results you want.

Bull Elk - Yellowstone Photo Workshop

Bull Elk – Yellowstone Photo Workshop

Cost can be an issue, especially for international workshops. Compare prices on the Internet. Sometimes operators tout a ten-day tour, but upon examination you find that the first and last days are travel days – no photography.

You do not have to go around the world to hone your skills. It is important to choose a workshop that features a specialty that is of interest to you (e.g. wildfowl, street photography, natural wonders, etc.).

AME Church, Chesapeake City, Maryland Photo Workshop

AME Church, Chesapeake City, Maryland Photo Workshop

This newsletter also serves to notify you that I will not be organizing my own workshops in the future. The workshop field is quite crowded as freelance editorial photographers are looking for ways to expand their income streams. In addition, it is difficult to compete with large known entities that have many workshops and can scale up their marketing for all of them.

In 2016, I had to cancel several workshops for lack of participation and several others had the bare minimum of attendees. I feel badly about those students who signed up for one of my workshops that ultimately had to be cancelled.

Pintails, Ward Museum Wildfowl Workshop - Photo by John Whaley

I will continue to lead workshops, but not organize them. In the future, if you and five of your friends want to photographically explore an area with my instruction, contact me and I will set it up. I also will give personalized instruction for a fee. And you may see my name as a workshop leader with organizations such as the Smithsonian or National Geographic Expeditions.

My newsletter is being renamed “Madden’s Memo”, since in the future it will not be a monthly missive. In the past, it appeared each month to remind recipients of the current slate of workshops. I thank you for your interest in the newsletter. You are very loyal. I only have had three “unsubscribes” in almost two years of publication! But alas, few of you signed up for my workshops.

AMC Winter Workshoppers in the White Mountains - Photo by Tim Linehan

AMC Winter Workshoppers in the White Mountains – Photo by Tim Linehan

I am redesigning my website to tout my photography. I tweet an image every day as a personal diary and they will appear on my homepage. I also sell my pictures on the site and at National Geographic Creative and give lectures to interested groups for an honorarium.

I photograph on assignment and you will continue to see my images in publications and on Instagram and Facebook.

Keep shooting!


Recently I saw the photographic exhibit “OBJECT:PHOTO at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is essentially the Thomas Walther Collection, a selection of 341 ”modern” photographs by 148 artists made from 1909–1949.

The prospectus says that the collection “represents the innovative vision of the 1920s and ’30s, a transformative period of modern photography and the foundation of our photo-based world.”

As presented by MOMA, it is much more.

Erich Salomon

Lore Feininger “Erich Solomon” 1929

In 2010, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave the Museum a grant to encourage deep scholarly study of the Walther Collection and to support publication of the results.

The MOMA coined the study “The Project” and spent several years developing new ways to relate to a collection of photographs. This exhibit is not a leisurely stroll through rooms of prints with arrogant captions written by the curator.

From the website: “Creating new standards for the consideration of photographs as original objects and of photography as an art form of unusually rich historical dimensions, the project affords both experts and those less familiar with its history new avenues for the appreciation of the medium.”

This is a turn-about from 1960, where as an example, in the United Kingdom photography was not recognized as a fine art. Dr. S.D. Jouhar said, when he formed the Photographic Fine Art Association at that time – “At the moment photography is not generally recognized as anything more than a craft.”.

The Thomas Walther collection consists of 347 photographs. Each photo contributes to an appreciation of the excitement that these 148 artists must have felt at the time. Loring Knoblauch at the Collector Daily (a great reference to locations and information on all current major photography exhibits) has this to say about the images in OBJECT:PHOTOGRAPHY:

Hebert Bayer

Herbert Bayer – “Humanly Impossible” 1932

“For those enamored with the burst of innovation we have recently seen with the digital revolution, the 1920s and 1930s were an equally exciting and disruptive time for photography. Those years saw the introduction of the hand held camera (and the flexibility it offered), the broadening of photojournalism (and the magazines that featured it), the growth of filmmaking, and the expansion of the avant garde. It was a time of intense experimentation both in Europe and America, with new technical developments quickly opening up new areas of artistic exploration and new visual vocabularies. Photographers from across the globe were connecting and cross pollinating in exhibitions, publications, and face to face meetings, taking advantage of their new found freedoms.”

Although the visceral quality of the images is the real way to see the art (why they are displayed in museums), many of you will not make it to the MOMA for this exhibit. However, all photographs are available on the OBJECT:PHOTO website. And there one can experience the Mellon Foundation study in many ways.

On the site there is a collection of essays on aspects of the exhibit, there is a section on Mapping the Photographs, on Comparing the Photographs, on Connecting the Artists and on Mapping the Artist’s Lives. All organized to enrich one’s appreciation of the Thomas Walther collection.

Artist Bernice Abbott

Mapping Artist Bernice Abbott

Here is a visualization mapping Bernice Abbott’s life to other artists. The website says,” This visualization illustrates the artists’ relationships with the various meeting points — influential exhibitions, publications, schools, studios, and industrial and cultural centers — that linked them in this era.”

So who is Thomas Walther? MOMA provides little information. I found a piece by Vince Aletti in the NYC Village Voice where he interviewed Walther.

“Walther, heir to a German machine-tool manufacturing fortune, is publicity-shy and evasive about the extent of his larger collection—he estimates its number at “somewhere between 1000 and 2000 pictures.

For now, the place he’s found is New York. Walther still describes himself as a Berliner, but he’s lived here since the early ’80s—he’s currently in a Soho loft—and feels at home the way he no longer does in Europe.

…he regularly adds rarities to what he calls his “core collection”—including a sublime, mid-19th-century daguerreotype of clouds by Southworth and Hawes that he snapped up at Sotheby’s last spring (1999) for $354,500…Speaking of his core collection, he says, “I was attracted to peculiar emanations of the human spirit,”

Thank you, Thomas for making your wonderful collection available to us.


Henri Cartier Bresson

My interpretation of museum print. George Hoyningen-Huene – “Henri Cartier Bresson” 1935

Henri Cartier-Bresson

George Platt Lynes – “Henri Cartier-Bresson” 1935

Tweeting My Visual Diary

When Twitter first appeared, I felt like many others that I did not need to know how someone I was following was enjoying breakfast. But my views have changed.

Now, I tweet almost daily, and each tweet has an image attached. What these tweets have become is a visual diary of images that are special to me and I want to publish. Publishing is the key here.

On this page, I have included only pictures from tweets from the last month. I have published 18 others during the month, but the images selected here show the variety of my subject matter.

Dali Museum, Tampa

Dali Museum, Tampa

Duck in Orlando

Just Ducky, Orlando

Leaves in Orlando









In my career, photography was a way to share experiences with an audience, and publishing in National Geographic magazine guaranteed millions of viewers worldwide.

In the global, networked community of today, the Internet is a nascent communications tool, which provides expanding opportunities for us to share information and experiences. We have the opportunity to re-define how stories are communicated or published; hence, the visual diary.

There are many ways to use social media to publish. Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Vine are some of the current opportunities. As a photographer, I need to use those that feature photography as an integral part of the published piece.

Bonita Srings Hotel

Hotel, Both Tweet and Instagram

Sailing, Tampa Bay

Sailing, Tampa Bay

Muscovy Duck

Valentine Duck, Orlando

Following is how I determine the best way to communicate my work.

Twitter. As explained above, this is for daily photography, some of it quite pedestrian, but I try to make it interesting. Many but not all of my tweets are taken with my smart phone. The captions need to be succinct, which is a good thing. I use many hashtags that increase the distribution of the tweet.

Instagram. I publish some of my better images here, usually timing them with specific events. As a member of The Photo Society, my Instagrams have over a million followers, and more than 15,000 likes (not looks, likes!). The qualities of the images on this site are exceptional, and I try to have comparable pictures up as Instagrams. Sometimes I also publish them tweets.

Oil Slick with Contrails

Oil Slick with Contrails

Kids in Snow

Shovel for Dollars

Flag in Snow

Wind Shovel








I use Facebook to let people know what I am up to. My tweets are automatically republished there, and because of this,  I post often.

My YouTube channel is filled with themed slideshows of images from around the world – Patagonia. Venice, Peru, Tanzania – as well as workshops where student work is featured.

I have a monthly newsletter where I explore photographic subjects of interest. You can sign up for it on this page.

My blog (you are reading one) about many things, from instructional tutorials to items such as photographic exhibits that I have recently seen.

Car Hood

Car Hood Tweet/Instagram

Gulls on Ice

Gulls on Ice

White Horse

White Horse, White Snow









I have turned Twitter into my daily visual diary, I find that it keeps me alert to the world around me, and through my images I try to make sense of it all.

Homeless in DC

Homeless in DC

The President

Presidential Limo

Chesapeake Sunset

Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay

Silver Swans

Silver Swans

Geese on Snow

Cold Morning

LUMIX Gh4: Capturing Stills from 4k video

LUMIX Gh4 Camera


Recently, I tested a Panasonic LUMIX Gh4 with two important features that affect how still photographers will be capturing images in the near future. Firmware now offered by Panasonic for the Gh4 makes it possible when shooting 4k video to set any shutter speed for each video frame.

The LUMIX Gh4 also is a WIFI hub and the Jpg images taken by the camera can be transferred to a smart phone immediately for distribution.

I put together a two and a half minute video that graphically shows how it all works. It can be found here.

Hi Res Hockey Still

8.5Mb Still at 1/1000 sec.







I took the LUMIX Gh4 to Disney World where, as an experiment, I shot only 4k video. I selected a number of frames that I extracted as stills for illustrations in my monthly newsletter.  Sign up on this page. I have included several other successful images below.

Ballon Pic

1/400 of a second, ISO 200















Horsing Around

1/400 of a second, ISO 400

Dapper Dan

1/400 of a second ISO 200


1/400 of a second, ISO 200








Birds in the Trees

1/30 of a second, ISO 800

Get my monthly newsletter by signing up on the right hand side of this page.














Instagram Comments on Martin Luther King Post

On Martin Luther King Day, I posted this Instagram with the following caption”

MLK Instagram

MLK Monument Washington, DC

“Monument in Washington DC. An awe-inspiring statue of an extraordinary man. He was killed before the current wave of terrorism, but through his words his legacy lives on — and addresses the recent atrocities in France #jesuisCharlie. We still hear his voice promoting justice and #love for all mankind. Two quotes from him come to mind: ‘We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools’ and ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Please heed his wisdom!

Of course the Instagram was published worldwide – many followers are outside of insular America. I received over 15,400 “likes” and 144 comments, thirty or so from the same three people.

Most impressive in this publishing venture was the dialog that the caption generated. Some were profane, some silly, but many debated views on freedom, racism, religion, etc. We should take note that many rational people see things in a different light.

Excerpts follow, with the actual Instagram monikers obscured for privacy reasons.

Awesome statue !!… people still live by his words !! CO

When people insult black people, it’s racism, when people fight the rights of the opposite gender, it’s sexism, but when people insult Muslims and its founder, it’s freedom of speech. To hell with every supporter of JeSuisCharlie. MD

Do you really think that the world is better off with those cartoonists dead? You think they were bad people for making jokes? You can’t be serious. Just because someone believes something strongly doesn’t mean that it is free from criticism. Freedom of religion is very important. But freedom of religion is a part of having freedom of ideas, and freedom of ideas will always include tolerating any criticism of any given idea. MR

MLK Jr. would have been disgusted by the violence committed, but he would have also been even more horrified by the consistent and systematic marginalization of Arabs in the present social, political and economic context. It is disingenuous and disrespectful to use his legacy in this way. PW

Those cartoonists died horribly but their deaths are nowhere near the injustice inflicted upon the poor and mistreated minorities the world over. Please choose your comparisons wisely. HM

Don’t think because you have that wrap on your head it makes you an expert on Muslims, black American history, especially X. I will school your ass anytime you want to come to Morehouse College and have a REAL debate with REAL black men. SGJ

Real black men, college? Debate? Dude you sound angry, take a chill pill….I suggest that you watch Selma. I recommend this movie to all young disenfranchised angry Muslim men to go see it and learn how to achieve success amid hopelessness. Many good lessons to learn from this movie. HM

Until your race starts fighting the racist ideas that your people have, and stop focusing on black’s resentment to the was they’ve been treated in the past and currently, we will always hate you deep down. SJG

Bro you can get your point across without insults. You might have knowledge but no one’s gonna listen if you dish out whatever you don’t like. AK92

…hate creates violence, the extent of the hate determines the headlines not the victims then revenge is created the vicious cycle begins, again. We have had and still do (have) individuals worldwide who go beyond just thinking but also do for freedom, injustice and inequalities, all should be praised… SH

MLK and Malcolm X put their lives on the line for what they believed. Anyone can talk a good game, which one of you would die for yours? MP230

King, Gandhi and Mandela…I salute you!! Cheers on #mlkday!! ASH

So sad that such a wonderful post was soiled by such hatred. This monument is truly amazing and I appreciate the posting as a reminder to us that hatred is not the way. SK49


I don’t agree that my post was “soiled”. I think it started a discussion.

Tell you friends about this site!


Review of My 2014 Blogs

Recently I looked back at the archive of blogs that I posted in 2014. Although there were a couple of outliers, most blogs fit into specific photographic themes. Please click on the links to revisit these blogs.

Objects in Disguise

White Mt Sunset

White Mountains Sunset

In the month of July I concentrated on tutorials on photographing things above the earth’s surface staring with fireworks just before the Fourth and followed up with the moon (a super moon in July), the sun and a rather complicated blog on star photography. Much fun and hopefully helpful.


As I consider myself one, photojournalists that literally put their life on the line enamor me. These blogs on Tyler Hicks (January) and Bob Edelman and his civil rights coverage (April) attempted to explore their vision and their bravery while photographing difficult subjects.

Thoughts for Photojournalists
These blogs explored methods and suggestions for budding photojournalists and included one on finding locals to help you (October), and returning to a location that one senses will make good images (Also in October).

Technological Advances in Photography
2014 saw new innovations on many fronts, from new cameras (July) to new software solutions by Getty Images (March). I also highlighted what social media is doing with our previously private information (February), and talked about good digital practices by backing up (January) and the value of having a tablet (February).

Photography Exhibits

The Bean

Cloud Gate Sculpture

I have personally entered a number of shows and exhibits and with a blog tried to impart some knowledge about how they are organized in May, but also highlighted exhibits in Mexico that show differences in approach with photography (March).

This Fragile Earth
Two blogs covered the international land grab (November), and how the Bureau of Land Management in the US is trying to mitigate the hordes of visitors that descend on sensitive areas (January). These blogs bookended 2014.

"The Second Wave", Arizona

“The Second Wave”, Arizona

I hope you enjoyed these ruminations and find that my future blogs in 2015 are of value. Before I put one up, I think about the photographic community at large, and try to decide if the blog may be of interest to them.

If you enjoy the site and find something of interest, please let me know.

Whose Land Is It Anyway?

A small bit of history to tether the current phenomena of land acquisition around the world.

Indian Reservation Map

Indian Reservation Map

In 1803, the United States bought what became known as the Louisiana Purchase from France. It consisted of 530,000,000 acres of land bought for about $15 million dollars (about 42 cents an acre in today’s dollars.). Although France reaped this income, the approximately 600,000 Native Americans, whose ancestors had lived on these lands for thousands of years, got nothing. Soon, their numbers would decline with the onslaught of European diseases.

Manifest Destiny (the belief that settlers were destined to expand across the country) put more pressure on the native population. Between 1800 and 1875 the US government sold off 400 million acres of Native American land (that had been “re-given” to them). See the map by Sam B. Hilliard of LSU here.


Much of this was accelerated by the Dawes Act of 1857 that created “checkerboards” of land allotted to the Native Americans. The act was created by reformers to achieve the primary goal of the breaking up of tribes as a social unit and opening the remainder of the land to white settlers for profit.

Indian Lands for Sale

Indian Lands for Sale

The checkerboards were 640-acre plots of Native American land interspersed with 640-acre plots of US government land. Finally, the US government sequestered the remaining Native Americans on reservations.



Different Perspectives Regarding Land

Land is an economic commodity. The major reasons for ownership are access and worth. While this concept is accepted by administrators and economists, much is an antithesis to the beliefs of indigenous people. For them, land rights are important for many reasons including ancestral inheritance, spiritual development and social status. Being sacred, the bounty of their lands is given to them by their gods. Losing their lands causes a loss of identity for indigenous people, affecting their worldviews and belief systems – a loss of contact with Mother Earth.

“Public lands” are administrated by sovereign states. They are designated as national parks, reserves, national forests, wilderness areas, domains of the king, etc. All have definitions and legal status, which can change depending on the political climate and needs of the state. Pressure is applied if the economic value of the land outstrips its designated value.

Today, we are witnessing major land grabs throughout the world. These include acquisitions and encroachment in national parks, ancestral lands, farmland and wilderness areas. The purpose of this blog is to highlight some of the more egregious violations occurring in areas where there are historically indigenous populations.

Case Studies

Maasai Hut

Maasai Hut

• Big Hunting Authorities in Tanzania have ordered the eviction of 40,000 Maasai people so their ancestral home can be turned into a hunting ground for Middle Eastern royals. A 1,500sq/km ‘wildlife corridor’ around Loliondo, next to the Serengeti national park, will be handed over to a commercial hunting and safari company based in the United Arab Emirates.

Activists have accused the government of reneging on a promise after it last year said it had backed down on the plans following intense global public opposition. Go here to connect with an organization that was opposed last year and may be currently involved. It’s possible that in 2014 they have given up.

Unlike last year, the government is offering compensation of 1 billion shillings ($460,000), not to be paid directly but to be channeled into socio-economic development projects. The Maasai have dismissed the offer. See a longer story on this issue in The Guardian.

“I feel betrayed,” said Samwel Nangiria, co-coordinator of the local Ngonett civil society group. “One billion is very little and you cannot compare that with land. It’s inherited. Their mothers and grandmothers are buried in that land. There’s nothing you can compare with it.

• Big Agriculture Ethiopian authorities since 2010 have embarked on a plan known as “villagization” to move some 45,000 households. The plan takes scattered families and consolidates them into fewer settlements. It is sold as a scheme for better schools, clinics, cleaner water, and, authorities say, more democracy.

Yet simultaneously Ethiopia is trying to lease up to 42 percent of Gambella – a state the size of the Netherlands – for agricultural investors. India’s Karutui Global Ltd and Saudi Star are the most prominent. Both have started huge farms for export of rice and other crops. Saudi Star is owned by Ethiopian-born Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi and is the nation’s largest single investor. See a story on this issue in the Christian Science Monitor.

Distorted Map

Distorted Map

Distorted world map according to the relative amount of land grabs on each country. The rescaling in this map is in proportion to the amount of land acquired by foreign investors after 2006. See the original map here.

• Big Oil In 2013 Ecuador’s President Correa announced an end to the moratorium on oil drilling in the Yasuni National Park, opening it – and lands inhabited by Huaorani (the indigenous population) – to oil drilling once again. The stage is set for an oil invasion by companies from China, Brazil, Argentina and the USA in conjunction with the state oil company Petroamazonas. US company Halliburton has signed long-term contracts to construct roads and camps, recover oil from existing wells and discover new reserves. Oil production is planned to commence in 2016. Most of the oil is destined for the U.S. (previous oil reserves discovered on Huaorani land were estimated to be worth $1.5 billion – enough to keep cars rolling in the U.S. for 13 days).

Twenty years ago Christopher Walker, Gordon Durnin and Tony Avirgan were filmmakers and told the story of the fight against Big Oil in the Amazon basin of Ecuador. Filmed over three years, it covered the fight by the Huaorani people to remove the oil companies from their lands and preserve the Yasuni Park – one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world. The resultant film, TRINKETS & BEADS won many major prizes worldwide, highlighting the Huaorani’s struggle around the world.

They are now engaged in a sequel to TRINKETS and BEADS and are soliciting donations here.

Martin Carbonell, a spokesman for the Yasunidos, (a collection of groups fighting the plan to exploit oil in Yasuni) said: “It’s very worrying what has happened. It is the end of the facade of democracy in Ecuador. Since the beginning of the process we have been subject to physical and verbal attacks, so this was not unexpected.”

These are just a few instances of worldwide pressure on indigenous locales.

What’s Next?

When takeovers of public lands occurs, the indigenous people of the area for the most part are not informed of what is about to happen, and ill-equipped to fight it. Internet transparency helps identify these land grabs that are fueled by state corruption, avaricious individuals and companies with their own economic agendas, but rarely has had an affect on the final outcome. The details of the land deals – made among high-ranking government officials with little consultation of local people – are often nebulous. And in many cases, land that officials have said was “unused” was actually managed in traditional ways.

Red Cloud

Red Cloud

After the decimation of the Native Americans, the famous Oglala Lakota Red Cloud now an old man on a reservation said: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

The percentage of the Native American population in the US is now .08 percent.

If you personally feel as I do that indigenous populations are underrepresented, please donate to one of the causes cited above, or when learning about similar indignations, find out how you can help.