Mapping Boundaries, Shifting Power: The Socio-Ethical Dimensions of Participatory Mapping

By Jefferson Fox, Krisnawati Suryanata, Peter Hershock, and Albertus Hadi Pramono

The recent growth in the availability of modern spatial information technology (SIT) – geographic information systems (GIS), low-cost global positioning systems (GPS), remote sensing image analysis software – as well as the growth of participatory mapping techniques has enabled communities to make maps of their lands and resource uses, and to bolster the legitimacy of their customary claims to resources by appropriating the state’s techniques and manner of representation (Peluso 1995). Since the publication of Hugh Brody’s seminal work on mapping the lands of native Americans in the Canadian sub-Artic (1981), participatory mapping has enabled the successful demarcation of land claims that led to: the signing of treaties (e.g. Nisga’a); compensations for land loss (Native American, Maori); and formation of indigenous territory and government (e.g. Nunavut).

But, the impacts of widespread adoption of SIT at the local level are not limited to the intended objectives. Among the unintended consequences of mapping have been increased conflict between and within communities (Sirait et al., 1994; Poole 1995; Sterritt et al., 1999); loss of indigenous conceptions of space and increased privatization of land (Fox 2002); and increased regulation and co-optation by the state (Urit 2001; Majid Cooke 2003). Consequently, mapping technology is viewed as simultaneously empowering and disadvantaging indigenous communities (Harris and Weiner 1998). Researchers working under the umbrella of Research Initiative 19 of the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) suggest that GIS technology privileges ‘particular conceptions and forms of knowledge, knowing, and language’ and that the historical development of the technology leads to ‘differential levels of access to information’ (Mark et al., no date). Rundstrom (1995) further suggests that GIS is incompatible with indigenous knowledge systems and separates the community that has knowledge from information (the ‘product’ of
GIS application). Tensions thus exist between new patterns of empowerment yielded through SIT and broader social, political, economic, and ethical ramifications of the

We submit that the tools, families of technologies, and practices associated with SIT use are value-laden and that deploying SIT will necessarily have ethical consequences. That is, the deployment of SIT will affect the constellations of values that distinctively shape any given society, its spatial practices, and its approach to reconciling conflicts or disharmony among competing goods or interests. We further submit that because the tools and technological families gathered under the rubric of SIT were not originally developed and produced in rural communities or among indigenous peoples in Asia, it will be in such settings that the tensions associated with SIT and its ironic effects are likely to be most apparent and potentially
profound. To date, most research on the social and ethical implications of spatial information technology has been conducted in North America (Sieber 2000). Given the rapidity with which the use of SIT is becoming ‘necessary,’ there is an urgent need to examine the implications of this technology – especially in rural settings and in less developed countries, as well as among indigenous groups.

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