Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Changing Geopolitics of Mapping


In the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student researching my M.A. thesis on llama-alpaca herders in Chile’s Parque Nacional Lauca, I was infatuated with maps. In fact, my love of maps was one of the reasons that I entered the Ph.D. program in Geography at Berkeley.

I had been to Lauca before I started grad school but, when I returned on a research grant from the Inter-American Foundation, I found it a little frustrating because of the limited availability of maps in what the Chileans regarded as a strategically significant border area along the Bolivian frontier. In the 19th century, Chile had acquired the area from Bolivia during the War of the Pacific, and it limited access to maps – for the most part, excellent topographic maps were available at a scale of 1:100,000, but areas closest to the border were literally whited out.
Those maps displayed a grid of the areas in question, but with no landmarks or physical features whatsoever – if you were close to the border, as I was in the Aymara village of Parinacota (pictured above), you could see its namesake 6,438-meter (20,827-ft) volcanic peak (pictured below, at right), but it didn’t appear on the map (the village itself sits at roughly 4,392 meters, roughly 14,409 feet, so the peak is a pretty imposing presence). Those areas were whited out, though, because the agency responsible for mapping was the Instituto Geográfico Militar, which reserved the best maps to themselves for ostensible security reasons.
The reason the IGM whited out those areas was that Bolivia claims the area in question, though in fact it was Peruvian territory at the time of the Chilean takeover. Moreover, Chile’s diversion of the Río Lauca for hydroelectricity is a lingering issue (the river’s source is in Chile, but it drains into Bolivia).
The military role in cartography is a remnant of a 19th-century attitude toward geopolitics; it's perhaps worth noting that, in General Augusto Pinochet’s textbook on the topic, he apparently confused Washington State and Washington DC. Traditionally, the Argentine military has taken a similar approach but I was surprised, on a recent web search, to learn that Argentina’s own Instituto Geográfico Militar (pictured above, from Creative Commons) no longer exists as such – in 2009, it became the Instituto Geográfico Nacional which, symbolically at least, would suggest a distancing between geographical information and its military applications. That said, the shift may be more rhetorical than real – small print, on the site, makes it clear that the IGN still depends on the Ministerio de Defensa, the Defense Ministry.
Interestingly, in 1986-7, when I spent 13 months in the Falkland Islands – which Argentina claims as the Malvinas, and invaded and occupied for ten weeks in 1982 – I had my best access ever to official maps. On a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, I purchased a full set of 1:50,000 topographic maps by the British Ordnance Survey from the local government Secretariat in the capital of Stanley (pictured above).
In the era of Google Maps, of course, ordinary citizens have access to more and better cartographic information than the official agencies of that time did. Still, given the sensitivity of a conflict that had ended only a few years earlier, it continues to amuse me to look at the salvaged rocket launcher tube I used to ship the maps back to England on the RAF charter flight at the end of my time there.

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