Eco-Cultural Maps and Calendars
Human communities have used chanting, gestures, inscriptions on papyrus, stone, wood or caves, even tattoos, to understand and communicate the meaning of their surroundings for most of human history.
With the widespread use of internet and global positioning systems (GPS), mapping is more a part of people's everyday experience now than ever before. The maps that most people are acquainted with are Cartesian, with fixed boundaries. Eco-cultural mapping is something quite different.
This simple, highly effective mapping process goes much further than charting the location and physical terrain of an area. It is about reconnecting with the past, understanding the present, and visioning the future.
Eco-cultural mapping is a collective process where communities map the immense web of relations which are within their territory. Embedded in the physical geography of the terrain, the maps reflect the social, cultural and spiritual meaning within the landscape. "Reviving our Culture, Mapping our Future", the film of a mapping process in Venda, South Africa, captures the process, which relies on participation by the whole community with the Elders at the centre.
The seeds of our knowledge and life are still with us. We should be ready to face difficult questions especially on cities, roads, hospitals, churches and schools which have fragmented our territories. These maps are like our development plans. They have emerged from us. After understanding the fragmentation of our present we are here to build a common shared future which is whole and connected again. Let's transform the present with hope and guidance from our ancestors, for the sake of the future.Million Belay, MELCA Ethiopia
Eco-cultural mapping is a living process, stimulating ongoing reflection and remembering. It is best done after a long enough period of Community Dialogues to revive the memory and cohesion of the community. The maps and calendars are a tool, not an end in themselves. Once the right time is identified to use the eco-cultural maps and calendars by the community and those accompanying the communities, a careful preparatory period is required. The art of this type of mapping process is to keep it simple and community-led. The purpose is to enable the communities to create physical maps to represent the maps in their minds, especially of the Elders. This then becomes a shared vision of the territory and can be used in various ways. Practically, the process requires the Elders and traditional knowledge holders to take a leading role. There is no need for any technical skills, no GPS or high technology, just big tables, sheets of blank paper and tracing paper, coloured pens and crayons, masking tape and pins. Everyone gets involved, in what becomes an intense and exciting process of coalescing a common understanding amongst all those participating.
There are many ways of beginning, but in general participants often choose to start by representing the physical domains of the land. The greatest challenge for facilitators is not to intervene unless really necessary, but to let the communities work it out for themselves. This enables them to take full control of the process, to be able to keep it going as a living, growing process over time.
In these processes, the first map is the map of the ancestral past - it shows the way the ancestors used to live according to customary laws, building their culture and looking after the territory to maintain its order. The second map is of the present - it shows the impacts, transformations and changes that the territory has suffered over time, and the disorder that has been created.
If you compare the past map with the present one you will see that the past one was green and we had no problem with the food or the wood to make fire, or any other type of material we might need. But in the present one, we don't even have enough space to plough our crops.
The final map is of the future, in which participants map initiatives they are taking to rebuild an ordered future and envision what else they can do to regenerate a resilient future.
Alongside the maps, eco-cultural calendars are drawn which bring movement in the maps, showing its seasonal changes. They encompass the Universe and reflect the cyclical nature of time: the outer circle shows what is happening in the cosmos with the stars and the moon over time; the next layer shows the climate, when is the rainy, dry, windy, or other seasons; the following layer show cycles in Nature, the habits of the animals, the fish, the trees and plants; this is followed by domesticated crops and livestock, the time for preparing the fields, planting and harvesting; the final circle marks the human rituals and ceremonies carried out in each of the seasons, the elements (musical instruments, feathers, plants, etc) that are used, and the different tasks of the men, women, shamans and children in each season.
There may be more layers the community wants to include. Once the whole picture is clear, it is also possible to "zoom in" and, for example, do a calendar on the cycle of a particular crop or livestock.
The eco-cultural maps and calendars are tools to stimulate the community to remember their stories of origin. They encourage the community to revive the practices required to participate in the rhythms and cycles of Nature which are charted in their eco-cultural calendars. The calendars show how traditionally learning takes place in community spaces, in the homesteads or family gardens, in the forest, along the rivers. Importantly, they reflect the holistic vision of the territory, of life and how everything is inter-related in space and time.
The maps become clearer as the process continues. The ancestors come whispering the knowledge of the territory to the community members.
The primary purpose of these eco-cultual maps and calendars is for the communities to use them as tools to revive ancestral knowledge and practices, to analyse the challenges of the present and to develop a common vision of how to rebuild their future now. This is what builds commnity cohesion, strength and resilience, and is the basis upon which communities can deal with the outside world, from a position of strength.
Based on the "riverbed" of this work, the eco-cultural maps and calendars have been used by both the communities in the Colombian Amazon and in Venda, South Africa, to negotiate with government and defend sacred sites networks. They have assisted communities to develop "lifeplans" or governance plans to gain legal recognition for their own governance systems, rooted in their values and norms.
These eco-cultural maps and calendars were first developed in Colombia, South America. A derivation of "social cartography", this particular way of using maps and calendars evolved in the Colombian Amazon during the 1990s. They became potent remembering tools within the COAMA (Consolidation of the Amazon) programme, enabling indigenous communities to revive their culture and reclaim their territorial rights over vast areas of tropical forest in the Colombian Amazon.
The maps show life as a picture. They reveal new realities and allow us to nurture a better life. A life which is in accordance to our own way of living……following the laws of Nature. We're now living in a way which I'd never imagined we'd be able to recapture. Ricardo Marín, Indigenous Leader, Pirá Paraná River, Colombian Amazon
Gaia enabled a sharing of this successful methodology with partner organisations in Africa. Training workshops have taken place in Venda (South Africa) and Tharaka District (Kenya). A handbook on Eco-Cultural Mapping will be published soon.
Find out more about mapping
In Venda, South Africa, an eco-cultural mapping process with our partners The Mupo Foundation, African Biodiversity Network and Gaia Amazonas, at the close of 2009, helped the community to stand up against developers who were bulldozing their sacred Phiphidi Falls and the surrounding forest. You can find out about their struggle by clicking here.
In Ethiopia, 3D model mapping has helped communities to demonstrate the causes of the degradation of their landscape. Thanks to our partner MELCA-Ethiopia, mapping has empowered the community to take back control of their future as they embark upon a process to restore their landscape to its former natural resilience and beauty.