Mapping Back: A workshop on counter mapping resource conflicts on Indigenous homelands

Science writer Sunitha Chari attended the MappingBack workshop in October 2017 organized by ACKnowl-EJ, Concordia University, Department of Geography, Planning and Environment and the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives (CICADA). She wrote about her experience for the Transformations to Sustainability blog

If I were to ask you to close your eyes and recall your favourite place, where would you travel behind closed eyes? What are the associated images, memories, emotions and sentiments that your mind’s journey evokes? If you live in the totality of the experience that this exercise has created, you begin to understand the meaning of a place. According to the geographer and researcher Sébastien Caquard, “A place is a location comprising both the material and the immaterial. The material comprising the landscape, geographical location and the topological characteristics, and immaterial comprising the human dimension of emotions, memories, reminiscences and recollections.”

For Indigenous communities throughout the world, their connections with their place and their land are often sacred; the landscape is steeped in their mythology, their rivers, lakes, mountains and forests are imbued with historical, cultural and spiritual significance. Their cultures are rich with stories, that are passed down from one generation to the next and through these stories the community retains the knowledge of their territory and terrain, the flora and fauna of their land, their water, food and medicine sources, and the seasonal activities that help them to live on and move through the land.

This personal and deeply spiritual relationship with their homelands is in stark opposition to the capital-driven view of land promoted by the industrial West, where territory is associated with power and money, and the value of the land is determined by its natural resources. Since Indigenous territories are often rich in natural resources, they are the targets of state and corporate-funded extractive activities such as mining, logging, fossil fuel extraction and natural resource projects like hydroelectric dams and power stations. These activities often result in the ancestral lands being confiscated from the communities that call these places home, locking them in resource and territorial conflicts with the agencies promoting the extractive activities, sometimes with devastating consequences.

Since territory is the central player in such conflicts, territorial representation plays an important role in addressing these issues. Maps are a 2D representation of territory and traditionally associated with power and capital. Maps have historically been used by capitalist and colonialist powers to spread their worldview. This inherent bias in the conventional mapping process leads historian and researcher Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert to conclude that maps present a social-technical problem. Critical counter-mapping can be used to subvert the dominant narrative and produce maps representing territory from the Indigenous perspective. These counter-maps serve as powerful symbols of resistance for Indigenous sovereignty movements and can be used to overturn the hegemony of capital, especially in repressive environments. In cartographer Molly Roy’s words,

“Maps are tools that are used by people in power, and counter-maps take back that power to tell the stories of marginalized people.”

The Mapping Back workshop held this October in Montreal, Canada, examined extractive activities and their environmental and socio-economic impact on the Indigenous territories, across North, Central, and South America. The workshop brought together representatives from eight Indigenous communities, cartographers, academics and students to explore how cartography can effectively counter the politics of knowledge that facilitate extractive activities and the ensuing territorial conflicts. During the first half of the workshop, the participants shared their experiences and perspectives around extractive activities and resource conflicts and discussed the various techniques and methodologies available to produce effective counter-maps. The second half of the workshop brought the participants together in teams to map the resource conflicts.

The Indigenous members came from across the Americas – from Alberta, Quebec, Mexico, Panama, Columbia, Venezuela and Chile. For the members of the Atikamekw First Nation of Quebec, their territory – which they know as Nitaskinan – was never ceded to the state, yet the state and other corporations have set up enterprises in their homelands to extract natural resources. Similarly, part of the Bigstone Cree First Nation territory in the province of Alberta has been usurped by the state for its oil sands. Though the revenue from these ventures greatly profits both state-owned and private enterprises, the profits have not been shared with the communities that live on these lands and have had negative impacts on these communities. Through his work with the people of the Coast Salish community of the Pacific North West, anthropologist Brian Thomconcludes, “The nonrecognition of Indigenous peoples’ land rights results in major social and economic inequalities.”


Mapping the settlement sites of the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group (HTG) territory. Detailed information on this project is available at https://sites.google.com/view/htgcasestudy/settlement-sites. To know more about the HTG case study visit https://sites.google.com/view/htgcasestudy/settlement-sites.

This map was developed by the Ethnographic Mapping Lab, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada, directed by Brian Thom. Photo courtesy of: https://www.uvic.ca/socialsciences/ethnographicmapping/projects/INSTEAD-mapping/index.php

The Indigenous territories belonging to the Mapuche First Nation, comprising parts of Chile and Argentina; the Ngäbe and Buglé Comarca of Panama; the Maseual communities of Sierra Norte de Puebla in Mexico, and the Pemon First Nation of Venezuela, whose ancestral land is situated around the world-famous Angel Falls and the Table mountains in Canaima National Park, like many Indigenous territories, are rich in natural resources. This has led to extractive activities that systematically confiscate these territories and dispossess the communities of their ancestral lands. The construction of dams across the rivers running through these lands results in the displacement of the people who live there, and often the communities concerned have very little or no power of governance with which to counter these incursions into their homelands. Resistance movements are organized to thwart the ambitions of these oppressive regimes and for the members of the Ngäbe and Buglé Comarca of Panama engaged in such resistance movements, women are an integral part of the struggle. In spite of the prominent role of the Indigenous women, they often remain the most vulnerable members of society across the Americas, as shown by Annita Lucchesi’s data on the missing and murdered Indigenous women. These struggles echo similar conflicts faced by Indigenous communities throughout the world.

The workshop also brought together cartographers with academics and students to discuss cartographic methodology and techniques, and to share their experiences of collaboration with Indigenous communities. Some of the cartographers present were Darin Jensen and Molly Roy from Guerilla Cartography, whose work has promoted thematic cartography through collaborative projects and community events, Philippe Rekacewicz whose cartographic works are available from visionscarto.net and Denis Wood, one of the pioneers of critical cartography.

Mapping the Dakota Access Pipeline in context of the Great Sioux/ Oceti Sakowin territory reduction over time. This map was developed by cartographer Molly Roy. Photo courtesy: http://www.mroycartography.com/

Sébastien Caquard presented deep maps and how they are used to present personal stories of people and their relation to space via multi-layered maps. The EJ Atlas, presented by Leah Temper, is a compilation of over 2,281 cases, making it a comprehensive atlas of resistance movements of people and communities across the world defending their land, water, natural resources and livelihoods from extractive activities with environmental and social impacts. These presentations and the discussions that followed were aimed at starting a discussion on how to expand the cartographic representation to include the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous societies.

The second half of the workshop was devoted to developing “design charrettes”. The “charrette” was a period of planning activity where the workshop participants came together in groups to design maps of the resource conflicts. The teams comprised academics and students who, along with the professional cartographers (including from Indigenous communities), developed thematic maps based on some of the common issues surrounding extractive activities, and their environmental and social impact. In preparation for the charrette, participants developed their own personal maps exploring an individual and communities’ relation to and perception of territory, and their movement through space and time.

The charrette offered the participants of the workshop an opportunity to be involved in the process of making critical counter-maps. Some of the charrettes incorporated Indigenous cartographic traditions and different spatial representations to explore the diversity in the way Indigenous cultures and Western societies perceive and relate to the territory. Others incorporated Indigenous stories into the map-making process, such as the 3D model of the world represented as the turtle. These models can be developed into counter-atlases to include maps of restoration, and when juxtaposed with the atlases of exploitation, they serve to demonstrate the effectiveness of counter maps in shifting the paradigm, thereby facilitating transformations.

Some of the charrette themes also explored the implication of time on resource conflict and extractive activities. One of the maps showed how the homelands of the Pemon First Nation in Venezuela have been exploited for mining and natural resource projects by mapping the incursions made by various companies from 1997 to the present day. Yet another group developed a 3D-model of mapping time from the perspective of extractive activities and their impact on Indigenous territories. Of the different kinds of maps developed during the charrette session, some were paper maps, while others were digital maps and 3D models. One of the groups developed an interactive map that will be used by the members of Ngäbe and Buglé Comarca to educate the youngsters of their community about their culture, folklore and mythology, their connection to their homelands and how this sacred bond is affected by extractive activities and resource conflicts.

In designing these maps, the charrette participants thought about the different roles they would fulfil. Some of the maps are intended to educate the members of the community about their culture and way of life, and to instil a sense of pride and identity with the community and the land. Others will inform the world of the challenges faced by Indigenous communities fighting to protect their homelands. These maps and the material collected during the workshop will be incorporated into a website and eventually into a comprehensive counter-atlas of extractive activities in Indigenous homelands across the world. Counter atlases like this are powerful tools that help connect groups to share resources and form strong alliances. Counter maps and counter atlases have the power to decolonize maps, providing a valid platform for people from repressive environments to voice their concerns, thus serving an important role towards restoring social and environmental justice. Ultimately they help create a paradigm shift in the way we think about progress and development.

As Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert concluded “Counter maps are powerful tools that enable us to search for better solutions to the existing conflicts around territory and resources.” And this workshop is just the beginning! For when people come together amazing things can be accomplished. In Molly Roy’s words, “When we put our heads together we come up with creative solutions,” that help us move towards a just and sustainable future for the planet and all its beings.

The Mapping Back workshop was held in Montreal, Canada, between the 14th and 16th of October 2017, organized by the ACKNOWL-EJ (Activist-Academic Co-Production of Knowledge and Environmental Justice) network in association with Concordia University, Department of Geography, Planning and Environment and the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives (CICADA). It was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) with support from the ISSC’s Transformations to Sustainability programme.

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