Cartographers Without Borders

by Clayton Aldern

Indigenous communities are building drones to make their own maps—and using them to fight erasure and exploitation at the hands of the state and capital.

Drone-produced “orthophotos” taken along the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. © Irendra Radjawali and Oliver Pye 2017.

Before the first drone came, the most unusual thing the birds of South Rupununi would glimpse above the canopy could have been mistaken for a lone, tough fruit. It was a transient thing: bobbing up, then pausing, then dipping back into the forest, only to rise again elsewhere at irregular intervals. You’d forgive the birds if they were confused.

To the people below, though, the object was a GPS unit tied to a pole; and if you were to follow the pole down past the canopy, almost to the forest floor where service was sparse, you’d find a hand hoisting it up. Not long before the drone came, this was how the cartographers would stitch together their maps: pin-drop by pin-drop, with smartphones and GPS units, geo-referencing the data with satellite imagery.

But the drone would come. And before launching it into the sky, the cartographers who built it would name it for a bird, and in a little patch of southwest Guyana near the Brazilian border, the kowadad—osprey—would begin to sketch its own maps.

Drone Vision

At the mobile ground-control unit near the mixed Makushi-Wapichan indigenous community of Shulinab Village, you might find Nicholas Fredericks planning a flight path. Fredericks, a former cowboy turned Wapichan community leader, is here because the drone’s spatial resolution affords a degree of photographic detail that far outpaces that of satellite data. That is, Kowadad has sharper eyes than the Guyanese government—which means Fredericks can present real-time evidence to the state, at a higher quality than that to which it has access, when illegal loggers and miners hurdle over their concession boundaries and infringe upon Wapichan forest lands.

In theory, it’s the kind of evidence that ought to be incontrovertible. But political movement on Amerindian land-use claims is often sluggish at best (if not wholly resistant). Over the past decade, a federation of Wapichan communities called the South Central People’s Development Association (SCPDA)—where Fredericks is a project coordinator—has worked to piece together high-resolution maps of the seventeen communities’ territories. Mapping is a means to establish land claims on an ontological footing equal to the government’s. The drone, which resembles an exaggerated model airplane and was assembled via YouTube and Skype tutorials with the onsite help of the Oakland-based nonprofit Digital Democracy, is the latest tool to aid the efforts.

In late 2015, Fredericks traveled to the Paris Climate Conference to accept a prize from the United Nations on behalf of the SCPDA, its ongoing mapping initiatives, and an accompanying land-use plan, which argues for secure indigenous land rights and the role of traditional knowledge in protecting the forests and their resources. “You have already listened, learned, and understood from us that our traditional practices are sustainable,” he told a packed Parisian auditorium upon receiving the Equator Prize. “We now need our governments to recognize this, too.”

That’s an ongoing challenge, explained Fredericks when I met him at the climate talks in Paris. “Some of the advantages of the work are that it allows us to build capacity with respect to technology and it enables us to present visual evidence—accurate locations of destructive sites—to the government and to the Ministry of Environment,” he said.

In some cases, the Wapichan mappers have aided the Guyana Defence Force by supplying GPS pin-drops of live, far-flung, illegal border-crossings made by Brazilian gold miners. The crossings were subsequently blocked by the military. “We got their attention,” said Fredericks, referring to state actors like the Defence Force and the Guyana Forestry Commission. But attention does not always translate to recognition, and Fredericks is often only able to secure verbal agreements related to Amerindian land claims.

Mapping Against Capital

For the state, the forest is strategic. It is either to be conserved or exploited (but never lived in). Decisions must be made about the relative merits of biodiversity and resource extraction and tourism. Perhaps a forest is valuable to the state because it can be logged for timber. Perhaps a forest is most valuable not as a forest at all, but clear-cut and replaced with a rubber plantation, a palm oil plantation, or a cattle ranch. Parcels must be divvied. And to align with the logic of private property, these decisions must be mapped. For communities residing in and around forests—who may be quite literally written out of the equation—the map simultaneously speaks and silences.

The erasure of community by mapping is a reminder of the enterprise’s inherently sticky subjectivity. Consider the well-known case of the Mercator projection—that canonical flat thing that pops up when you Google “world map”—in which irregularly spaced latitude lines balloon the perceived area of land farther away from the equator. Europe expands; Africa shrinks. But this subjectivity isn’t just a function of subtleties like choice of geometric projection. To take one broad example, the entire notion of the territorial nation state (much less that of private property) is entirely incompatible with many traditional conceptions of place.

Twenty years ago, a young scholar named Nancy Peluso used the term “counter-mapping” to refer to acts of non-state cartography. Since at least the sixteenth century, elites have used maps to demarcate resource rights. “However,” wrote Peluso, “if maps can be seen as one of many ‘authoritative resources’ that states mobilize to consolidate their own power, then local groups’ appropriation of the technology of mapping may help to counterbalance or at least offset the previous monopoly of authoritative resources by the state or capital.”

Today, NGOs like Digital Democracy appear to have taken up the mantle, arguing for a technological democratization of mapping. And while the idea does contain radical potential, the forces that have made it feasible are distinctly unradical. As human geographer Agnieszka Leszczynski suggests, it was precisely a neoliberal shift in the political economy of mapping that has helped enable its democratization.

Consider a largely deregulated tech giant like Google releasing a privatized mapping service—previously the role of a public-sector mapping organization—and subsequently opening the Google Maps API to the public. Anyone can hook into the API (or, better yet, open-source mapping services like OpenStreetMap) and achieve a base level of technological legitimacy. As the welfare state recedes, cartographic responsibility shifts. It is a small irony that the neoliberal hollowing of the state and its twin cults of individualism and privatization would pave the road for decentralized counter-cartographies.

Peluso’s case study focused on Kalimantan in Indonesia, where the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN had found that Japanese, Philippine, US, and European timber concessions had been allocated 57.9 million hectares of forest by the government—despite the fact that only 43.3 million hectares were classified for timber production. The governmental forest-planning map that guided the awarding of concessions also plainly ignored indigenous community boundaries.

This imbalance between production, conservation, and community remains just as exaggerated today. Overlapping permits have led to a situation in which “130 percent of the total area of West Kalimantan is now covered by concessions for mining, palm oil, logging, and pulp and paper plantations,” according to a 2017 study by Indonesian scholar-activist Irendra “Radja” Radjawali and his colleagues.

No Magic Wands

Radja’s work with Dayak communities in West Kalimantan mirrors Wapichan efforts in South Rupununi. He too assembled a community drone via YouTube tutorials for less than six hundred dollars. “The government, the military, the companies—they all use maps,” he explained, speaking shortly after Fredericks back in Paris. “We have to counter-map. We have to use the very same technology to fight back.”

In the Indonesian case, counter-hegemonic mapping has sometimes yielded more tangible results than in Guyana. Recently, Radja and his team used the community drone to produce a high-resolution map of a bauxite mining concession that overlapped with a local community’s land claims in the sub-district of Tayan Hilir. The mining company in question had drained a lake, which had previously been vital for subsistence fishing. By geometrically correcting the aerial photographs to produce so-called “orthophotos” and then overlaying the images on the official concession map, the researchers could prove the company was illegally operating outside its concession boundary. Since the publication of the orthophotos in a 2016 report, the Tayan mining operation has been shut down.

Perhaps more importantly, in a case heard before the Constitutional Court of Indonesia—unrelated to the question of concession boundaries per se—drone orthophotos of West Kalimantan were accepted as supporting evidence of detrimental environmental effects of mining in the region. When the court ruled against the mining corporations in the case in question, environmental activists and civil society organizations celebrated it as having set a precedent for the evidentiary use of counter-maps in the legal system.

In Guyana, Fredericks contends that his central cause is the preservation of traditional knowledge. When we last spoke, he reflected on how it was the proliferation of cell phones among the young people in Shulinab Village that had originally motivated him to seek out ways “to use technology to our benefit”—that is, not as another vector of Western influence but as a means of upholding and elevating indigenous practices.

It’s a quiet little paradox, and one that suggests Amerindian and other indigenous cartographers are often fighting two battles at once: one on the legal front, in an effort to ensure community mapping techniques count as admissible evidence in court; the other epistemic, in which indigenous ontologies square off against Western (colonial) mapping practices.

The latter case is often fraught with compromise. Fixing borders cartographically, for example, may threaten to cement something traditionally conceptualized as fluid or shared. Take, for example, software developer Victor Temprano’s efforts to crowdsource and superimpose Native and First Nations’ territory on a map of North America at To settler eyes, the result is forceful and reorienting. But these territorial boundaries were often never written down as such. At risk of generalizing across diverse systems of indigenous land tenure: they were delineated orally or ecologically or seasonally or cyclically—or, in the case of communal ownership, they didn’t really exist at all.

Fixing borders can not only be misleading, but dangerous. The act of accepting a given state’s administrative units can in turn be co-opted by the state for further land-grabs. In West Kalimantan, for example, some researchers have argued that counter-mapping Dayak villages—which drew boundaries to land that hadn’t yet been surveyed by the government—has had the unintended consequence of delegitimizing other Dayak land claims, as well as bringing indigenous institutions under state control. As cultural geographers Joel Wainwright and Joe Bryan noted in 2009, a valid concern arises that counter-mapping strategies “do not reverse colonial social relations so much as they rework them.”

Radja and his colleagues are cautious, too. “Rather unsurprisingly,” they write, “drones are not a magic wand that can conjure away hierarchies and power structures at the local level or in wider society.” They note that although drone workshops in Dayak communities have led to more young people taking up activist and leadership positions, almost all of these people were male. What drones can do for sovereignty and land tenure they can perhaps not do for gender equality. Some of the revolutionary potential here will mature slower than the rest, or perhaps not at all.

Which is indeed what one would expect. “The effect of a concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways,” wrote the physicist Freeman Dyson in Imagined Worlds. “The effect of a tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained.” Yes, the counter-cartographers have much to explain. First, they need the powerful to listen.

Clayton Aldern is a writer and analyst living in Seattle. He recently completed a Grist fellowship and a Rhodes scholarship.

This piece appears in Logic's third issue, "Justice." Subscribe to receive all three issues per year, or purchase Justice and other back issues at our webstore.

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