Although it is mostly considered as a neutral science, not related to the socio-economic structures under which it is developed, mainstream geography has always reflected and reinforced the power structures of its time. In this article, we present some cases that could help us reflect about the ways in which geography and mapping are and could be used.
LET’S TRY AND RIGHT THE WORLD FOR GOOD
In 1973, Flemish cartographer Arno Peters published a new world map, as opposed to the so-called Mercator’s one – which has been (and still is) accepted by the scientific community for at least five hundred years.
Creating this new projection, Peters demonstrates that any geographical map sacrifices a piece of reality by favouring others: thus, while Mercatone favors distances to facilitate the tracing of routes on land surfaces, distorting the effective proportions between the surfaces of the different continents, the new Peters’ map proposes to respect precisely these relationships, breaking down the world into 100 horizontal and as many vertical parts, necessarily maintaining meridians and parallels perpendicular to each other. In this case, the distorted element is the vertical distance.
The so-called Gall-Peters projection, which has spread since the 1970s in all fields in which a new attention to the global South was growing, also through a more political internationalism, demonstrates how a Eurocentric point of view must be definitively abandoned. At the same time, it helps restore the dignity of those countries hitherto considered the backyard of the West or places to exploit without limits, lacking any respect for their populations.
Going back in time, Joaquín Torres García, Uruguayan modernist painter, in 1941 published his political testament Universalismo Constructivo, where he introduced one of the first maps that politically put the traditional north-south relationship in crisis.
It is the famous América Invertida (“reversed America”), which its author commented as follows: “Our north is the south. The North does not have to exist for us. […] For this reason, now, let’s turn the map upside down, in order to get a more correct idea of our position, and not what the rest of the world wants. The tip of America, from now on, prolonging itself, will insistently signal the South, our North”.
Subsequently, in some pictorial exhibitions, Torres Garcia’s concepts will be resumed and revised, as can be understood from this art work:
Investigating a bit more (I am an outsider of the field of geography, even though I have always found it fascinating) I found Fuller’s Projection, also known as Dymaxion map (1954), in which the American architect used an icosahedron to project the spherical representation of the Earth onto a two-dimensional surface. The interesting element of this invention is that in Fuller’s map there is no “below” or “above”, much less “north and south”, but only “inside and outside” – where the inside is towards the center of gravity and the outside is instead away from the center of gravity.
But that’s not all: in 1979, the Australian Stuart McArthur tried to overturn the world, drawing a map in which his country, which is always marginalized on Western maps, occupies the center, relegating the noble Europe to a tiny space on the right corner, between Africa and the Americas.
These maps will not have much luck as far as their spreading and use are concerned, but they remain as evidence of a new perspective through which we can see, study and understand the world. And through which we can also change the traditional concept of geography: the make us reflect on the fact that what to privilege in a geographical map is a cultural fact, not a neutral scientific truth.
THE NEW GEOGRAPHIES
Thanks to Aldo Zanchetta and his precious work of reworking and disseminating texts analyzing the Latin American reality(1), I came across an introductory report Alberto Acosta presented at a geography conference in Ecuador last winter(2): a long but highly interesting text which is linked to the alternative vision of the world and its representation, including geographical, which I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Alberto Acosta is a geographer, former Minister of Energy and Mines of Ecuador during the first government of Correa, president of the Constituent Assembly of Montecristi, in which the new Constitución Ecuatoriana was promulgated, the first in the world to recognize nature as a right. He is currently a member of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, aimed at finally understanding nature as a subject of law and not just as an object in the hands of man.
First of all, Acosta redefines the very concept of geography, understood as the verb “geo-handwriting”. It is necessary to begin to write the geo starting from the resistances, which are the spaces in which alternatives and proposals are born. We should start from los de abajos (those below, according to the Zapatista terminology), in the broadest sense of the term: indigenous people and peasants, women, social subjects existing in different places on the planet, engaged in the construction of a new pluriverse, where many worlds could co-exist in a post-capitalist horizon, finally without patriarchy, racism, destruction, concentration, authoritarianism and impoverishment of the majority of the population in favor of a small minority. These geographies cannot therefore make geographic maps neither for the rulers of the moment, nor for the states, nor for the extractive industries – that is, for anything that represents power. They are geographies attuned to those visions that aim to overcome anthropocentrism and utilitarianisms, recovering the different and distinct values of communities and their surroundings; they are, says Acosta, geographies strictly linked to human rights and the rights of nature.
Such speech is only apparently abstract: just think of the use of geography in the history of Latin America, since its so-called conquest (when, for example, with the mediation of Pope Alexander VI, thanks to the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1494, continent Abya Ayala was divided between Spain and Portugal), and the enormous number of conflicts and territorial disputes that have risen starting from the elaboration and interpretation of a map.
It is all too clear that power controls mapping, that geography too often turns into an instrument of domination, that there is always a very specific ideology behind the maps. The fundamental question is not what these maps teach or would like to teach, but what they try to hide.
Acosta, who has taken distance from the Ecuadorian governments of Correa and then of Moreno, considered too authoritarian and pro-extractivist, quotes as a recent case in the history of Ecuador that of the initiative Yasuni-ITT, through which, in 2007, it was established that in the Parque Nacional Yasuní, in the middle of the Amazon, a significant volume of oil had to be left intact (it could not be extracted); at the same time, a substantial sum of money was requested from the international community to compensate for safeguarding nature. In 2013, the then-president Correa officially declared this initiative closed, arguing that the international community was not ready to understand this choice, nor to share it. Numerous exponents of Ecuadorian society argued instead that Correa himself had betrayed his previous choices and the new constitution itself, starting to sell off his country, opening the doors to extractivist multinationals. What happened as a consequence of these events (and this is what is relevant in this discourse on the political meaning of geography) is that since August 2013, the Waorani (or Huaorani), who have always lived in Parque Yasuní, have definitively disappeared from the maps. A sadly ironic detail: in their language their name means “we are people”.
Thinking about the political use of maps reminded me of my first trip to El Salvador, in 1986, in the middle of the civil war: in a militarized country, in which no one, not even a Western like me, could feel safe, buying a map was a very risky move, since in case of a police check it could be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the guerrillas, to whom valuable information could be transmitted on existing locations and structures right through those maps. I still jealously keep that crumpled map, stealthily handed to me by a member of ANDES 21 de Junio (the teachers’ union that was trying to get out of clandestinity at that time), a young teacher who had contacted some trusted people in the capital to get it.
Going back to Acosta’s introduction, he eventually refers to what he calls los mapas de resistencia (“maps of resistance”), making some examples such as a project Acosta himself developed in 2004, together with Carlos Córdoba Martínez and Mauricio Betancourt, for the construction of participatory geographies and maps. The title was Tachiwa, Knowledge and Practices of Territorial Orientation in the Amazon, about which a book has been written later. The main point about the projections of resistance is that without being “professionals”, without possessing the technological language of an expert in the academic field, indigenous communities are actually composed by true geographers, as through their knowledge they are perfectly capable of identifying and ordering their spaces, e.g. locating sources of water, paths, sacred places, the fundamental elements for the defense of their territory. All in all, a society that knows and transforms its territory also knows what geography is, it is necessarily composed of geographers who contribute individually and collectively to the construction of a new future. This interpretation certainly clashes with the traditional concept of geography, which is supported by power and interprets this discipline as a neutral science.
GEOGRAPHY AND GENDER
But my argument does not end here, since once again it is women who surprise us: it’s time to introduce feminist cartographies, which try to understand and build an alternative starting from marginality, also through the interaction between technology and territories.
Mexican geologist Céline Jacquin argues that maps can be read with a profound, almost intimate sense, stating that “any map makes me feel in a totally sensual way. My first mental reflex is to imagine this space. So I try to shape an imaginary reality on it. The more I know this space, the more it is real and therefore less imaginary ”. The mapping of the representations of the song Un violador en tu camino (composed and sung for the first time on November 2019 during the Chilean protests and later re-proposed and translated all over the world), as well as, for example, the indications of the marches activated in the different countries on the 8th of March, for the International Women’s Day, highlight the importance of making alternative cartography, giving greater representativeness to subjects rooted in different territories, as is the female and feminist galaxy today. “If you are a migrant and you want to know which initiatives have been organized for the 8th of March in the city where you are and you don’t know anyone, you can contact the organizers or simply know where to go to take part in it through this map. This global map of the day of struggle becomes a multiplier element” explains Isaura Fabra, one of the cartographers who was in charge of organizing the data related to the global strike. Jacquin, together with Selene Yang (3), is one of the members of the collective GEoChicas OSM.
Let’s Introduce OMS first. Open Street Maps (OSM) is a kind of Wikipedia of maps, an alternative to Google Maps: a collaborative open-source project to create a free editable map of the world created in 2004 by Steve Coast, a British engineer. Selene Yang, who has started collaborating with OSM since 2016, described it as “open a bottom-up initiative to make available geographic data open and free to use, a project that has now achieved a certain popularity throughout the world”. Yet, she continued, she realized that “we were trying to create the most complete and accurate world map starting once again from a masculinized vision of space”.
For this reason, acknowledging that only 3% of the more than 4 million OSM collaborators were women, Yang decided to create a small working group together with other volunteer geographers to highlight the gender gap and, obviously, counteract it. . Hence, she organized a regional event of the feminist component of the OSM community to start reflecting precisely on this minoritarian female presence. From that meeting the project Chicas OSM started to be imlemented: it is currently a group that counts more than three hundred members, representative of about twenty-two countries, mostly Latin American, for whom feminist geography is a central political and academic commitment. The women involved in the project share the concept that inequalities support and reproduce gender relations also in socio-spatial aspects: “A geographical map is a reflection of who built it, it is not a neutral product, it has a very strong political and subjective charge”.
Focusing on the smaller urban context, traditional mapping paves the way to urban restructuring plans that do not take into account the needs of women, such as safety or the possibility of moving easily in the urban context. Geochicas, reappropriating the mapping, found that a gender perspective tends to give greater prominence in urban architecture to services that men tend to ignore, such as hospitals, nurseries, shelters against domestic violence and specialized clinics for women’s health. By shaping the territory, we connect to the central themes of feminist movements today, imagining cities where women’s needs are not ignored: with more clinics for a safe and free abortion, more suitable places for changing babies’ nappies, more extensive public lighting, up to designing automatic machines for the purchase of health products to make them more easily accessible.
One of the projects carried out by Geo Chicas was Las calles de las mujeres (“the streets of women”), whose aim was trying to monitor how many streets of the largest Latin American cities are named after women. From this survey it emerged that, for example, in Buenos Aires only 6% of the streets carry a female name, in Mexico City they reach the 12%, while the city most attentive to this issue is Havana, with 40% of the streets dedicated to women. Similar projects are implemented all over the world, in an effort to give more visibility to women through the improvement of toponymy.
Linked to this project, another one was created and carried out since 2017: Calles violetas, un mapeo participativo del espacio hostil para las mujeres (“Purple streets, a participatory mapping of the space hostile to women”), aimed at mapping various cases of gender violence. It was developed in Mexico City, Puebla, Monterrey and Mérida, involving, in addition to activists from Geochicas, also students, activists, members of other social organizations, regional and state officials. The methodology used in carrying out the initiative is described in this article: it involves various steps such as the identification of a representative of the community present in the area affected by the mapping; the convocation of the women involved; the definition of the path; the assignment of different roles (the facilitator, the narrators and the witnesses, those who map the territory, those who will carry out the collection of information and testimonies and those who will manually upload the data collected in the maps). You can also find suggestions on how to involve groups of men, if necessary, while maintaining the central role of women in the project.
The maps that record the violence against women, as well as other kinds of collective mapping, have the unprecedented and original feature of having and offering data collected by the communities involved, for greater visibility of their own political and social demands. These practices are in line with a notion which has become central in feminist discourse in recent years, namely the concept of body-territory. In her article for Pikara, Florencia Goldsman quotes Mayeli Sánchez Martinez, feminist geographer and hacker, reminds us of the importance of the relation between bodies and geography, and therefore the centrality of mapping, that can help us in understanding and fighting violence, thinking about the link between our bodies and the land in which we live, reflecting how we have been represented in the world we live in.
The information contained in the geographic maps developed collectively – we could use the term “talking maps“(4) – belong to the communities that have conceived and translated them on paper. In this sense, they are the ones who decide whether the maps should remain within the same communities or if it can spread outside, also turning them into digital maps – helpful to contrast the official narratives of states and companies with their easy access. Sharing Selene Yang’s worlds again, “Mapping is a process that creates a space of protagonism and by redesigning the world we can contribute to rebuilding other new gender relations”.
(1) Edited by Zanchetta Aldo, MININOTIZIARIO LATINA AMERICA FROM BELOW, n. 3 of February, 18th 2020
(2) Acosta Alberto, La geografía como verbo, no como noun
(3) Selene Yang describes herself as follows: “I’m a feminist , lover of geographical maps and investigator in social communication. I was born in Costa Rica, but my family is of Nicaraguan origin and I am half Taiwanese. Nowadays I live in Paraguay, and I did my PhD in Communication in Argentina. A little confusing, isn’t it? I am also a defensora of human rights and I work at TEDIC, an organization committed to preserving digital rights. I am also a member of the Centro de Investigación en Comunicación y Políticas Públicas de la Universidad Nacional de La Plata. Ah, I also have Aa cat.”
(4) According to the Association Geografia Critica Ecuador, talking maps are defined as a basic tool of social geography with which a group of people represents the space in which they live. Women are asked to draw their communities on posters and to tell, for example in the case of a forced presence of soldiers for an eviction, where they came from, what they destroyed, and how the local inhabitants sought and found refuge.
-> To know more about GeoChicas, you can check this video of the University of Mexico City
-> In the XVII Encuentro de Geógrafos de America Latina, one of the reports was on “Feminist and gender geography in Colombia”, exhibited by Astrid Ulloa, who has been leading a course on this topic at the National University of Colombia since 2011.
-> This reflection on non-neutral and feminist geography was born after reading an article by Pikara, which I’ve also cited more than once in this piece.
-> One last “fun fact”: did you know that the name Ecuador – obviously derives from the equatorial line that passes very close to th-e capital Quito – exists only since 1830, when, after the separation from Greater Colombia, a first Constituent Assembly decreed its birth as a new state?
Maria Teresa Messidoro is vice president of the association Lisangà culture in movimento