Cartographies and rights

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By HENRI ACSELRAD*

The uses of cartography for the appropriation of cartographic language by non-dominant groups

The notion of territory was, in its origins, closely linked to the State's modes of existence. Representations of the space where the State would exercise its power and sovereignty were on the agenda. In European monarchies, knowledge about the territory served the Prince to better dominate the space. This knowledge was produced in several ways: through research to identify its heritage; by the sovereign's journey, which asserted his presence in the places where he collected taxes; and also on the map, which showed the space of the Kingdom. Knowledge of the territory was, therefore, inseparable from the exercise of state sovereignty itself.

The first spatial description of territories listed names of rivers and borders. Then, the map became a means of affirming political ambitions and will. He began to serve in war and in the propaganda of the glories of the Kingdom. Having geographic information meant asserting authority by displaying one's domains, protecting the riches it contained and ensuring that no one took possession of information about them. This was not the case in 1502, for example, when the only copy of the royal planisphere representing the Indies and Brazil was stolen in Lisbon, based on surveys by Pedro Álvares Cabral and Vasco da Gama.[I]

But it's important to remember that maps don't just have a practical function. They also have a symbolic function: they disseminate schemes for perceiving space, and these perceptions end up becoming reality, becoming a means of producing territory. A recent example of this was the ban, by the Indian government, on foreign delegations to the G20 meeting in New Delhi, in September 2023, from entering the country with maps of Chinese origin placing the Indian state of Arunachi Pradesh within China's borders.[ii]

This subliminal geography of cartographies contains spaces, values, beliefs, but also silences. These empty and silent spaces on the maps are, in reality, affirmative statements and not passive gaps in language, as all cartography implies statements of belonging and exclusion. Among the modalities of this “silence”, the way in which non-dominant ethnic groups are made invisible, when their monuments are ignored, when their distinctive cultural landmarks are “erased from the map” by the imposition of the symbolism of a group, culture or religion stands out. dominant.

The sociological literature on the practices and uses of cartography discusses whether it would be possible for non-dominant groups to appropriate cartographic language. Brian Harley, an author who worked on the relationship between cartographic knowledge and power, was pessimistic, stating the impossibility of popular cartography. For him, “maps are essentially a language of power and not of contestation”; “the processes of domination through maps are subtle”. And he continued: “cartography remains a discourse that reifies power, reinforcing the status quo and freezing social interactions within well-defined boundaries.”[iii]

Now, there is more recent literature that has called the process of demarcation and land titling involving, since the 1990s, traditional communities and peoples in Latin America as “territorial turn”. These processes are often associated with experiences of so-called participatory mapping or social cartography. From the 1990s onwards, there was a break in the state monopoly in the production of maps, with the establishment of a kind of “insurrection in the use” of maps associated with demands for representation and production of new territories.

The diffusion of social cartography in Latin America occurred together with three other processes: (i) in the legal field – with the ratification of ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples in 1989 and its incorporation into many constitutional reforms in the region from 1990 onwards ; (ii) by a growing dynamic of self-organization of these people within movements and alliances; (iii) with the possibilities opened up by new geomatic technologies. Thus, new maps of indigenous and traditional peoples asserted territorialities and attributed power. Geographers confirm that “many indigenous territories were recovered through these maps”.[iv]

It is worth asking: would Brian Harley be wrong? Not exactly. Despite his pessimism, he himself emphasized that “the mechanisms of domination operated by cartographic discourse could only be understood in their particular historical situations” and that symbolic and cognitive disputes could perfectly emerge, as in fact they did, around cartographic knowledge. Territorial disputes can, therefore, be linked to cartographic disputes.

What is the concrete situation configured with the emergence of symbolic disputes from the 1990s onwards with the emergence of the so-called “territorial turn”? With regard to indigenous peoples, the politicization of their struggles led to certain groups appropriating instruments such as maps. JoãoPacheco de Oliveira (2006) had already highlighted how, in the case of the demarcation of indigenous lands in Brazil, there had been a process of politicization of territorial appropriation practices.[v] The political character to which territorial representation techniques are subordinated for the purposes of delimiting and demarcating indigenous lands had been obscured for a long time, until 1995, when so-called “participatory” demarcations were assessed as capable of strengthening indigenous organizations in the control process. and social appropriation of the limits of their lands. Then, he says, “a new socio-political reality was constructed in which a historical subject entered a process of territorialization, began to be recognized under its own modality of citizenship”.[vi]

Mac Chapin, an American anthropologist and activist who was present at the beginning of the self-mapping experiences of indigenous lands in Canada, recognized that his colleagues had ignored “the profound political implications of territorial mapping”, and that the accelerated pace of mapping took them by surprise. in which indigenous peoples began to benefit from ethnomapping. What had begun as an academic exercise in environmental cartography quickly metamorphosed into a form of political cartography.[vii]

On the other hand, despite the dissemination of participatory mapping and social cartography practices, Brian Harley's theses about the difficulties of implementing popular cartography still resonate. On the one hand, there persists, among the agents of so-called “participatory mapping”, the perception that this is an oxymoron, given the distance between the symbolic universe of indigenous and traditional peoples and that triggered by conventional mapping technologies. It is also clear that in most experiences there is a strong role played by mediators and funding institutions.

The question then arises: when could we say that there is in fact political control of mapping by the communities themselves? Under what conditions can Brian Harley's pessimism be concretely challenged? In known experiences, it is observed that the protagonism of the groups themselves tends to occur when the mapping appears as an extension of the repertoire of actions already experienced by them and not through a simple possibility of “participation” offered by bodies external to the groups.

So, andIn contexts of real or potential conflict, the map would appear as one instrument among others. And in each context and situation, groups would be asking themselves whether they are actually interested in mapping or not, what to map and why to map, what techniques to employ, how to control the results of mapping and how to protect the data and traditional knowledge they contain. . They would thus seek to know the chain of actors, technology holders, mediators and financing agencies involved in the mapping, in order to, effectively, “feel like owners of the map”, seeking to make it clear who is the political subject of the mapping and what is the degree of their autonomy. If we consider the conflictive context in which a large part of the experiences of indigenous social cartography and traditional peoples are located, these subjects are often led to answer the instigating question: “who maps who”[viii]?

The distance between the different spatial representation languages ​​is evident. Turnbull highlights how indigenous maps explicitly hide what should not, from an indigenous perspective, be shown.[ix] Western maps, in turn, present themselves as transparent, but hide their assumptions. Martin Vidal Tróchez, leader of the Nasa ethnic group in Colombia, points out how “on the Western map, the measurable tends to displace the immeasurable”,[X] admitting that the inclusion of indigenous peoples in state institutional spaces led them to use “more technical” instruments, leaving aside their own methods: “when it was necessary to make maps, we made them with a stick on the ground and then memorized them so as not to leave evidence.”

From the perspective of the struggle for the recognition of territorial rights for indigenous and traditional peoples, Tróchez offers an original response to the dilemma formulated by Harley, supporting the relevance of indigenous groups resorting to “Western” maps for the purposes of their “external policies” of claiming territories, reserving their traditional maps for what they consider their “internal policies” of cultural affirmation and reproduction[xi].

* Henri Acselrad is a retired full professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] P. Rekacewicz, La cartographie, entre science, art et manipulation, Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2006.

[ii] MCFernndes, Ukraine and Xi Jiping's absence challenge G20, Economic value, 7-8/9/2023

[iii] B. Harley, Cartes, savoir, pouvoir, In: P. Gould. & A. Baully (Eds.) Le Pouvoir des cartes – Brian Harley et la cartographie. Anthropos, Paris, 1995, 48, 49 4 51.

[iv] B. Nietschmann, “Defending the Miskito Reefs with Maps and GIS: Mapping With Sail, Scuba, and Satelite.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 18(4), 1995.

[v] J. Pacheco de Oliveira, There was an Anthropology of Indigenism, Rio de Janeiro: Back cover, 2006, p. 86.

[vi] J. Pacheco de Oliveira. op. cit. P. 174-175

[vii] M Chapin and B. Threlkeld. Indigenous Landscapes. A Study in Ethnocartography. Arlington, VA: Center for the Support of Native Lands, 2001.

[viii] Offen. K. Mapeas o te mapean: Indigenous and black map in Latin America, Fulbright Chair, Universidad del Norte, 10 and 11 August 2004, Barranquilla.

[ix] D. Turnbull, Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers. Routledge, London, N. York, 2000.

[X] MV Tróchez “Some reflections on the experience in the application of social cartography and participatory geographic information systems in indigenous and peasant communities in el Cauca – suroccidente de Colombia”, Seminar on Social Cartography in Latin America. Rio de Janeiro: IPPUR/UFRJ, 2010.

[xi] MV Tróchez, op. cit.


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