In this article Juliana Thornton (YLNM Coordinator for Southern Africa) and Sharon Chipunza report on how social mapping methodologies that have taken root in Brazil offer opportunities for communities everywhere to come together, make their knowledge visible, and protect their land from the extractive industries.
A project based at the Federal University of the Amazonas in Brazil presents some dynamic methods and opportunities to strengthen social movements in Africa. In an innovative partnership, the Ford Foundation is supporting an exchange between institutions in the Global South to extend the methodology.
The Social Cartography Institute (PNCSA) works with communities to document their territories and livelihoods through the creation of geographically accurate maps led and authored by the communities themselves
Decolonising knowledge, culture and land
The creation of the map presents communities with an opportunity to stake a claim of ownership over ancestral territories. Whereas imperial powers used maps to divide and expropriate land belonging to indigenous communities, the process of community mapping embodies a form of decolonization, exploring aspects of territory that are relevant to the community members, their histories and specific social situations.
International law such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO Convention 169 recognise and provide for protection of community rights to sacred lands, cultural and spiritual practice and participation in decision-making through their prior informed consent. Social cartography provides a path to realizing these rights on the ground.
Empowering marginalized groups
The process of declaring ownership over a territory presents an incredible opportunity for empowerment.
In Zimbabwe the radical title to land in communal land is vested in the traditional leaders/chiefs. The chiefs are responsible for allocation of the land. There is a dual legal system and the existence of a dual legal framework in which customary law operates side by side with general laws in respect of family law. However, a distinct pattern of social arrangement that determines access and control of land in Zimbabwe is patrilineal and is unpopular because it gives primary land and natural resource rights to men. These rights are then inter-generationally transmitted through the male lineage. Thus the rights of men are duly protected in this system but socially exclude women.
The creation of a map through carefully constructed communal mapping workshops provides an important opportunity for marginalized groups, especially women, to participate in staking a claim to resources, lands and territories.
The experience in Brazil, and our own experience in South Africa and Zimbabwe, has shown that women often take the lead in the sketch mapping of the territory: providing a never-before seen opportunity for them to stake their claim to the land. The map can make women’s invisible work, tending farms, gardens and wild space, and hence ensuring the continued existence of the entire community, visible, and hence, undeniable.
In Zimbabwe statutory tenure offers equal rights to men and women on paper but in practice this is clouded with a plethora of challenges which makes it difficult for women to enjoy these rights. Mapping could provide a strategy to address gender discrimination in social, political and economic spheres of life by providing physical documentation of women’s contribution to the livelihoods of communities.
Resource mapping documents previously undocumented information and knowledge about local resources. Once this information is documented the communities and marginalized women have a tool to challenge and hold their local institutions, local authorities, chiefs and even national governments accountable. The women and their communities are also able to fully and meaningfully benefit from local resources.
Resisting corporate land grabbing and abuse
Social cartography methods might also prove useful in situations where communities face conflict with corporations who are trying to convert community land for industrial agriculture or mining.
While the process of securing community “consent” in obtaining land for mining licenses –as required by law in South Africa – is often not much more than a box-ticking exercise for corporates, the involvement of social cartography methods could assist in strengthening social movements and certainly in strengthening communities to demand their rights with regard to an “environment not harmful to health or wellbeing” as defined in Section 24 of the South African constitution.
The examples in Brazil are that the published maps have stood up in court battles to allow traditional communities to protect their lands and livelihoods from corporate take-over and devastation. In 2008, following a court battle, the expansion of a military base into Quilombola territory was stopped. Women Babassu nut collectors (Quebradeira de coco babacu) have laid claim to 10 million hectares of land (Alfredo Wagner Berno de Almeida, 2014). The work of the women babassu nut collectors was previously unrecognised and the location of the babassu groves was undocumented, leaving it open to corporate takeover. With mapping, the women have been able to secure their rights and hence their continued livelihood.
Power to the people
Social cartography offers a practical way of not only mapping territory and previously undocumented patterns of ownership, but also to create governance and decision-making structures for communities to secure legal recognition for their land and resist the economic, political and social exclusion that is so common for rural communities. With the physical activity of drawing the maps, many different members of the community, young and old, male and female, become actively involved in decision-making with regard to their local resources.
In the social cartography methods we saw implemented in Brazil the communities initiate the mapping process and document their knowledge of the land, which originates from centuries of living sustainably within the ecosystem. Their knowledge of their territories, previously undocumented and ignored, becomes visible.
Mapping provides an opportunity for communities to own, control and benefit from their resources regardless of gender or age. In the increasingly bitter struggles over land between communities and corporations, mapping provides the means for future generations to inherit their ancestral land and build sustainable livelihoods, as opposed to the alternative of displacement, disinheritance and grinding poverty as corporations grab land for mining and industry.
As movements, communities, institutions and activists whose vision is to see a progressive African continent characterized by empowered communities that can decide their own destiny, why not go the Brazilian way?