Critical Cartography as Transformational Learning

David Meekby David Meek, University of Georgia

A fundamental principle of critical geography is that maps are embodiments of power, differentially legitimizing particular communities, histories, and practices and obscuring others (Harley 1989; Pickles and Didunyk 1995).  Given the ubiquity of cartographic “products” in development and conservation work, counter-mapping initiatives have skyrocketed over the last two decades, providing communities the tools to spatially illustrate their histories and struggles (Brown 1999; Harris and Hazen 2006; Rambaldi et al. 2007; Sletto 2009).

While much has been written about these projects, one under-explored area has been their pedagogical value—that is, the valuable learning that happens through counter-mapping.  A major counter-mapping initiative called the New Social Cartography of the Amazon Project (PNCSA – Projeto Nova Cartografia Social da Amazonia) is taking place throughout the Brazilian Amazon, providing various  marginalized communities with the cartographic tools necessary to legitimize their own histories, and learn from each other’s struggles.  The objective of this blog post is to highlight this initiative, theoretically contextualize it, and report back upon its new project in the southeast of Pará, Brazil illuminating the learning that takes place as communities network and reflect on their situationality.

The New Social Cartography of the Amazon Project seeks to enable the self-mapping of traditional peoples (both indigenous and non-indigenous) as well as social movements.  The Project’s basis in critical cartography is clear from its website, which notes that:

“The material produced by the project furnishes greater knowledge about the process of occupation of the Amazon and, above all, a greater emphasis on and a new instrument for the strengthening of the social movements that exist here.  These social movements consist of expressions of collective identity referring to particular and territorialized social situations.  These specific territorialities, socially constructed by diverse social agents, sustain the collective identities objectified in social movements.  The strength of this differentiated territorialization process constitutes the object of the project.  Cartography appears as an element of combat.  Its production is one of the possible moments of social self-affirmation.”

It is not hyperbole to describe cartography as ‘an element of combat’.  The southeastern region of the state of Pará, Brazil has long been one of the most violent areas of the Amazon (see Simmons 2004; 2005).  Landless workers, indigenous groups, communities affected by mega-development projects, ranchers and multinational corporations engage on a daily basis in both a physical as well as ideological struggle over the future of the Amazon.  In this context, counter-mapping is not only about making legible cultural landscapes, but also in taking an ideological stand against the continuing exploitation of marginalized communities.

Between September 4th and 6th 2012, a counter-mapping workshop took place at the Cabanagem Training Center (Centro de Formação Cabanagem) in Marabá, Pará, Brazil.  The Cabanagem is a space for training and education of social movement members, which has existed since the 1980s.  The space is named after the Cabanagem revolt, which happened in the then named state of Grão Pará between 1835-1840, following the independence of Brazil.  The workshop was a preparatory meeting to help create a collaborative process for mapping communities affected by the large scale environmental devastation that is associated with industrial mining, dams, and other mega-projects.  Participants included researchers from the Federal University of Pará, as well as members of the Brazilian Movements of Landless Workers, Dam-Affected Peoples and Processors of Coco Babaçu.  Over three days, movement members discussed their individual and collective identities and began collectively mapping the threats to their communities.

As a participant observer, I found that the pedagogical aspect of this workshop pushed my geographical imagination. I have previously written here about the variety of forms of learning that happen as people engage in social action (see here and here).  However, the scholarship on learning in social action has largely neglected the important learning that can happen as people participate in critical cartography (Welton 1993; Spencer 1995; Foley 1999; Gouin 2009).  Over three days I witnessed the forging of connections between social movements, as members realized that their struggles were not isolated, but rather intrinsically related, emanating from the larger system of capitalist exploitation.  Educational scholars emphasize that it is the process of active reflection that is key to learning taking place (Mezirow 1990).  One could hear the proverbial cognitive wheels turning as movement members placed their communities on the map and saw what geographic features spatially, politically, economically, and ideologically linked their communities and struggles.  For example, the rail line that runs from Paraupebas to Marabá in Pará and then to São Luis in Maranhão is operated by transnational mining giant Vale corporation.  Each community has been affected by Vale, whether through direct environmental exploitation, attempts at land grabs, or through enticing a communities youth to work in the very mines they oppose.

As the workshop wrapped up, plans were made to take the lessons learned in counter-mapping to the next level.  Discussions abounded concerning holding GPS training workshops, and realizing a longer-term community-based mapping project.  Yet, the learning was not simply located at Cabanagem.  As we sat on the bus, returning back to the MST agrarian reform settlement where I am currently conducting fieldwork, one conference participant remarked “I can’t wait to tell my Mom about what the women who are part of the Movement of Processors of Coco Babaçu are doing.  Some of their experiences working with artisanal products could really take hold in our community.”  In addition to the maps produced, it was this learning from place-based narratives that was the take home cartographic “product”.


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