Note — Oct 16, 2022

The Counter-Map and the Territory

Nabil Ahmed for Archis explores how to fight a map with a map, specifically in Papua, one of Indonesia’s largest and most profitable provinces yet its poorest. Following Dutch de-colonisation, President Sukarno’s regime used large-scale mining projects to finance the government and rest control of West Papua from indigenous tribes inhabiting the region. Through the years, Freeport PT Indonesia, a subsidiary of Freeport McMoran, continued mining, polluting, and even using a whole river as a dumping ground where “[o]ver 200,000 tons of tailings flow through the river per day into this area, which contain highly toxic arsenic, copper, cadmium, and selenium.”

Over decades, local tribes have made gains in the Indonesian constitution, “which recognizes customary forest rights and practices such as participatory mapping.” Today, using mapping tools, people on the ground, GPS, and satellite imaging, they are mapping out and trying to reclaim lands that were theirs for centuries before colonisation, and documenting pollution, destruction, and expansion of mines. No doubt the companies and some politicians will fight tooth and nail against it, but it’s nonetheless hopeful and more than a little pleasing to see tools of the colonisers being used the other way around.

Freeport, which now shares the mine with Rio Tinto uses a 293,000-hectare area including the Otomina and Ajkwa River to the Ararfura Sea in effect as a geotechnical system for tailing deposition. The journey for the toxic waste begins from the mine located over 4,000 feet above sea level through its ore-processing centre down to the lowland estuaries and a diverse forested coastal zone of mangroves, sago, tropical, and cloud forests. […]

Historically mapping as a hegemonic practice and more recently remote sensing have been extensively used to locate earth’s resources. The same methods are now increasingly used to evidence resource exploitation for the service of environmental and human rights. […]

The anthropologist Nancy Lee Peluso has called forest mapping in Indonesia a form of ‘local territorialization’ where the maps and map-making act as an advocacy tool for land rights.