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“I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.” - Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
s we all try to survive the challenges of our moment — a global pandemic, a flashpoint in the climate crisis, the banality of capitalism’s billionaires in space — a tool exists which has been present with us throughout. This tool organizes our worldview, piques our curiosity, perhaps even liberates our imagination . Yet it also shapes our opinions, reinforces the status quo, and, if we aren’t careful, perpetuates the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and extractivism. Of course, I am talking about maps.
If you live in the “developed” world, you see maps frequently for some of the issues mentioned above. Imagine what you would do, then, if you didn’t have access to maps. Your homeland? Not on the map. The ecosystems you care about? Not on the map either — not because maps of the places around you don’t exist — but because maps, as an instrument of the state, don’t include you.
These claims aren’t new. JB Harley said this in an essay originally dated 1988:
Maps are never value-free images; except in the narrowest Euclidean sense they are never in themselves true or false. Both in the selectivity of their content and the signs and styles of their representation maps are a way of conceiving, articulating, and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon particular sets of social relations (Harley 2002: 53).
Thankfully, our world’s recent events seem to be bringing some of those “sets of social relations” into the open to be reckoned with. It follows, then, that we must continue to reckon with the influences maps will exert in this process. Such a reckoning is what makes the book Radical Cartographies: Participatory Mapmaking from Latin America so timely and necessary.
First, it is worth noting how the book came to be: chapters are contributed from practitioners (not all of whom are “scholars” in the conventional sense) working in the field with Black and Indigenous communities to make maps. The essays were collected after several years of discussions, each translated into English, and edited for academia. Setting the book as a collection of case studies sets it apart from other work on critical cartography, precisely because the onus of the work is in the collective hands of the communities striving to preserve their lands and lifeways. Any claims made are derived from work in the field, not only academic debate.
Second and more important, Sletto and colleagues, from the lessons of those case studies spanning the last ten years or so, are able to offer sharp insights into why radical approaches to cartography are essential if we are to survive as a species (both in a social and an ecological sense). Sletto writes in the introduction:
We seek to describe and critically assess not merely what mapping in the singular can ‘do’ in empirical, Cartesian, developmentalist, or political terms within a nation-state context but also what maps and mappings in the plural mean for the reproduction of places, natures, and identities… (p. 3).
This shift from the singular to the plural also signals a new growth for critical cartography for our age: while the work of deconstructing cartography’s “troubled history as a technology of power” (p. 6) is ongoing, practitioners, scholars, and allies can take a decisively active role putting power back in the hands of indigenous communities and tuning in to the ecological knowledge found in a community’s traditions.
Consider the image above, made in a participatory mapping workshop. Rather than make a map as understood in the Western sense, the community (the Yurutí del Vaupés) made a calendar-map hybrid that tracks growing seasons, rainfall, and more. This kind of mapping happens as a broader “ritual conversation” that “embraces the myths, celebrations, and meanings that Indigenous communities assign to their sacred places” (pp. 37-38). Such a ritual has been termed “social polygraphy,” emphasizing that such a mapping happens in community spaces and with many voices.
As an orientation for mapmaking, social polygraphy becomes a form of resistance to the “structural violence reinforced by national maps“ (p. 81) while offering ways to subvert the distinctions made by more Western cartographies — for example, social polygraphy renders the distinctions between physical and human geography moot. In the case of the Mapuche people, they are fighting deterritorialization at the hands of the Chilean state (who militantly campaigns to take the land). In one aspect, their fight is for land, water rights, and ixofillmogen, or “all forms of life” (p. 82) — a mapping of the more-than-human world, ecology at its most sublime. In another aspect, as the Mapuche people lose their language (instead using Spanish), they lose their indigenous knowledge — thus mapping becomes a ritual tool for saving a culture. Contrary to the Western ontology that separates human from nature, animal from rock or stream, the Mapuche understand these beings as connected.
That notion of interconnection might just be what we need. Along these lines, Glenn Albrecht argues that we should call our current era the Symbiocene, emphasizing our symbiosis with all lifeforms:
“In the Symbiocene, human action, culture, and enterprise will be exemplified by those cumulative types of relationships and attributes nurtured by humans that enhance mutual interdependence and mutual benefit for all living beings (which is desirable), all species (essential), and the health of all ecosystems (mandatory).”
The terminology of the symbiocene does not assume that we are already living in mutual interdependence, but emphasizes how desperately we need to be — with the attendant changes to economic and political structures necessary for such a mode of relationship to become possible. Such a term might offer Westerners a way to conceptualize indigenous geographies as being alive — landscapes where human action or inaction are not the only stakes at play. Moreover, maybe having maps to guide us from the compounding crises we face won’t just be metaphorical. By knowing our relationships to land and place and people, perhaps we can better understand our place in the world.
To return to Sletto, a case study with the Ye’kwana and Sanema peoples in Venezuela articulates a similar idea: “places are not merely geographic reference points but also constitute a cultural landscape — that is to say, a geographic space with social significance“ (p. 53). Within this social significance is also embedded knowledge for ecological stewardship. These layers of significance in the “landscape” invariably touch up against the fraught power relationships of the “territory.”
Throughout the book, the idea of territory is repeatedly evoked as a site for memory, as a living fabric upon which community lives are painted, as a place to be protected from activities of oil drilling or logging, and as a point of leverage for the powers of the state (p. 209). These case studies demonstrate across different countries and communities the intractable and interdependent problems of human rights and environmental rights. This is why Sletto’s book seems so responsive to our moment. While the book is written to explain the maps and the work done there, it seems impossible to not respond from a place of empathy or outrage. Sletto’s work and the work of his colleagues demonstrate that critical scholarship can offer public benefit on these issues, if we are willing to pay attention — for our own landscapes, for marginalized peoples, or indeed for the earth as a whole.
In Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom, he speaks of humanity’s ontological vocation: that we have a vocation to be fully human, to participate in the world precisely because of the influence we have upon it. With so many of us feeling anguish and outrage and helplessness at the state of the world and its climates, Freire’s words seem prescient:
I have a right to be angry, to show it and to use it as a motivational foundation for my struggle, just as I have a right to love and to express my love to the world and to use it as a motivational foundation for my struggle, because I live in history at a time of possibility and not of determinism. If reality were pure determinism, because it was thus decided or planned, there would be no reason at all to be angry. My right to be angry presupposes that the historical experience in which I participate tomorrow is not a given but a challenge and a problem. My just anger is grounded in any indignation in the face of the denial of the rights inherent in the very essence of the human condition (2001: 52).
The events of the last year and a half show us just how essential and extensive those “rights inherent” in the human condition ought to be — and how much further we must go to bring that kind of world into being. Indigenous peoples have a right to inhabit their lands, and an emerging body of evidence shows that they are indeed the best stewards of those lands (Cannon 2021, Vansomeren 2021). Moreover, in the face of extractivist corporations or unconcerned politicians, these maps offer a sliver of optimism, of light in a dark moment.
In this way, the cartographies proposed by Sletto et al. really are “radical” — not only in the political sense of the word as we use it today, but also in its original sense. The word comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” Radical cartographies, social cartographies, urge us to consider the roots of our societies that need nourishment and care. They compel us to think not only about maps as representations of space but as documents of a place and its peoples and the struggles for spatial justice. Radical maps give us means to practice our Freirean vocation to be fully human — and in being fully human in the 21st Century, to be angry and motivated in the struggles for land and climate and equity. Social polygraphy means that we can practice being fully human by also being stewards for this fragile and more-than-human world.
 For more on this see JK Wright’s “Terrae Incognitae: The Place of the Imagination in Geography”
Albrecht G (2021) “Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene, 2021.” Center for Humans and Nature. Accessed August 16, 2021.
Cannon J (2021) “Nearly half of the Amazon’s intact forest on Indigenous Lands: Report.” Mongabay. Accessed July 22, 2021.
Freire P (2000) Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. P Clarke, trans. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Harley JB (2001) The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. P Laxton, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Sletto B, Wagner A, Bryan, J and Hale CR, eds. (2020). Radical cartographies: participatory mapmaking from Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Vansomeren L (2021) “Tribes Are Leading the Way to Remove Dams and Restore Ecosystems.” Yes! Magazine. Accessed July 22, 2021.
Caleb Winebrenner is a master’s student in GIS at the University of Southern California, where he will defend his thesis in mid-December of 2021. He comes to geography after a decade in the humanities. His work spans folklore, historical geography, critical cartography and pedagogy, and environmental humanities.