Mapping for Transformation in Ethiopia

Systems Analysis

Dr Million Belay, Researcher, Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Co-ordinator, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa; Dr Dylan McGarry, Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University

The maps we inherit are often not the maps we need. In this era of climate change, massive inequality and relentless consumerism, we need to use maps with local communities to help them navigate out of the hot mess they find themselves in. The ‘T-Learning’ research network, stretching across nine countries, is using a mapping technique that fosters radical and disruptive forms of learning and action that we hope can contribute to profound social and cultural transformations towards a sustainable world.

The ‘T’ in ‘T-learning’ stands for both ‘transformative’ and ‘transgressive’, referring to forms of learning that: generate critical thinking; connect individual and collective agency; and change social and cultural practices. T-learning therefore explicitly challenges all that is normalised and oppressive (eg, colonial practices, greenwashing, eco-fascism, over-consumption, environmental injustice) and helps to reveal practices or situations that need transforming if sustainability is to be achieved. T-learning is also a transdisciplinary process in that it relies on crossing knowledge boundaries in iterative, collaborative and generative ways.

Conventional, hegemonic approaches to mapping are usually top-down and privilege certain forms of knowledge while making other bodies and forms of knowledge invisible. For example, modern education and development institutions tend to misappropriate and misrepresent indigenous knowledge and practices; by contrast, a key principle of T-learning is to recognise the ecologies of knowledge that exist in our world, and to make space for multiple ways of knowing to be expressed, flourish and be shared, in the process of ‘co-producing’ new knowledge.

The counter-hegemonic mapping process

The case of Counter-Hegemonic Mapping in Ethiopia demonstrates the transformative and transgressive qualities and processes of T-learning in a very applied and tangible way. Counter-hegemonic mapping draws on principles and practices of the participatory mapping method, which rejects the notion of the separation of mind and body or people and place, in favour of a holistic approach to mapping. Critically, the counter-hegemonic mapping method emerges from and addresses key matters of concern in specific communities and contexts. In the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia where the approach was first tested, the community was concerned with enriching and protecting bio-cultural knowledge and supporting natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, research, conflict resolution, land rights and intergenerational learning.

A variety of mapping tools and methods were used, most notably sketch mapping, which allows participants to create maps from observation or memory. It does not rely on exact measurements, such as having a consistent scale, or geo-referencing. It usually involves drawing symbols on large pieces of paper to represent features in the landscape relative to each other. Early sketch maps then open up the social and imaginative space for developing the map legend. The co-creation of the legend was a significant T-learning moment: the tensions emergent in re-framing of what should or should not be on the map proved to be highly generative and transformative moments for learning and negotiating different worldviews and values among the map producers. Once consensus on the legend was established, the creation of a more permanent collective 3D map was possible. The 3D map development process is also very tactile, using artefacts and materials that are ‘warm’ and familiar and usually associated with a feeling of home. For example, geographic features relating to land use and cover are depicted on the model through the use of pushpins (points), yarns (lines) and paint (polygons). When the model is finished, a scaled and geo-referenced grid is applied to facilitate the synergy of local indigenous knowledge with scientific geographical forms of knowledge production.

Ultimately this work motivated collective action around seed saving, seed sovereignty, rehabilitation of degraded areas, and the creation of a new association for organising the community with a unified yet nuanced identity. It opened up spaces for intergenerational learning, solidarity building and holistic and culturally sensitive perceptions of the landscape. It also strengthened the social tissue between local government, civil society and other groups who came together under a single purpose, connected through the central image of the decolonised map.

See a short video of process

The T-Learning network is supported by the International Social Science Council through the Transformations to Sustainability programme.

This blog was produced in partnership with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

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