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Putting environmental justice on the map

An EJ Atlas feature map on mining in Latin America.

From prehistoric charts of the stars etched into cave walls to the fine-grained, multi-dimensional projections of the 21st century, maps have been tracing, reflecting and influencing the development of human society for thousands of years. As expressions and representations of our environment, maps have long been invaluable in providing direction and guiding human decisions.

Today mapping goes beyond mere visual representation of the environment. Maps of all kinds try to capture and interpret the enormous variety of physical features and human activities around the world. They provide evidence of change over time and can help to show patterns, correlations and relationships between facts and phenomena that might otherwise go unnoticed. Maps have been instrumental in helping identify negative changes to the environment and in pinpointing what or who might be responsible, and – importantly – who might be affected.

From an environmental justice perspective, maps are powerful tools for exploring the relationship between economic and social developments and environmentally destructive human activities. For example, a landmark mapping study from 1987 demonstrated the practice of building toxic waste sites in communities of colour in the United States. Some 30 years later, many fear that this kind of environmental racism still persists, from the local to the international level.

Environmental justice is a field of academic study and a social movement, uniting academics, advocates and activists in an effort to achieve greater environmental and social justice through genuine collaboration with communities affected by environmental injustice. The environmental justice movement uses maps to advance its cause, as a tool for broad-based activism. By contributing to collaborative maps, community members share their knowledge of the changing environment around them and work collectively to identify the causes of those changes, as well as recording counter-action.

The ACKNOWL-EJ network of scholars and activists studies community-level resistance to destructive environmental activities – particularly ‘extractivism’ – and works with those communities to co-produce knowledge on how to construct alternative, desirable and feasible futures.

ACKNOWL-EJ uses mapping as a way of documenting cases of environmental conflict around the world. It builds on the groundbreaking work of the EJAtlas to map environmental conflicts such as those over mining, construction and waste, water and land management. The maps created highlight the impact of environmentally destructive activities on vulnerable populations. The ACKNOWL-EJ team is also considering creating a feature map on the rights of nature, which will map and describe various legal or other formal ways in which such rights have been recognized in recent times, and a map of radical alternatives.

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A key aspect of the maps produced by ACKNOWL-EJ is their participatory nature, whereby those involved in struggles in an affected area work alongside researchers to identify the areas of conflict and share testimonies that highlight the negative effects they suffer. For example, the Latin-American Women Weaving Territories map, released on International Women’s Day 2017, highlighted 21 conflicts involving the struggles of women against mining and in defense of life across Latin America, including personal testimonies from women. Working together to create interactive maps and gathering stories of resistance to destructive development – from toxic waste sites to oil-refining to deforestation – helps to bring these issues to the fore and to mobilize for change.

The ACKNOWL-EJ team are also working on the development of multi-language maps, and in particular a map in Arabic highlighting cases from the Middle East and Arab region, to bring the maps’ findings to a bigger audience and widen the net of potential contributors.

Participatory mapping is providing a new way to give a voice to those struggling against detrimental interventions in their environments. What’s more, the participatory nature of the work strengthens communities and can inspire and mobilize others, sometimes leading to the creation of new alliances across groups. Sharing testimonies can also encourage others to take action. By mapping such forces for change, the ACKNOWL-EJ project is helping to make desirable alternative futures more and more tangible.


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