‘Counter-Mapping’ the Amazon

Samuel Fritz, “The Marañon or Amazon River with the Mission of the Society of Jesus,” 1707. Map, 31×39 cm. National Library of Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

The Conversation has a piece on how indigenous peoples in the Amazon are using “counter-mapping” to reclaim not only their ancestral lands, but as a way to counter the colonial process of mapmaking itself.

Maps have always been part of the imposition of power over colonised peoples. While map-making might be thought of as “objective”, it is fundamentally political, a necessary part of controlling a territory. Maps inscribe borders, which are then used to include some and exclude others.

During a late 19th-century rubber boom, Amazonia became increasingly well mapped out as the young nations of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia vied for territorial control. The rights and interests of Amazonian peoples were never included in this process and they would be continually denied rights, recognition and citizenship from these nations until the 1980s and 1990s. Even following legal recognition, their territorial rights—critical for their continued existence—are still often ignored in practice.

These marginalised people are now working together to reclaim the process of mapping itself. In the central Brazilian Amazon there has been a recent flurry of “counter-mapping”, used by forest peoples to contest the very state maps that initially failed to recognise their ancestral territorial rights.

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Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.