The Social Justice Implications for Critical GIS in EIA

In 1980, French philosopher Foucalt wrote that as a society, “we are subject to the production of truth through power” (Foucault, 1980, p. 3). Those in power decide that their perception of reality is “the truth,” which then becomes cemented in the public consciousness. The perfect example of this process at work is a map. Maps are often perceived to be objective representations of places on Earth, and go largely unexamined. Maps are highly political because they reflect the values of the culture and era in which they were drafted (Naud 2012). However, the inclusion of particular information often means the exclusion of alternate narratives.

From my perspective as an Ontarian, I always picture the province of Quebec with Newfoundland attached to it. These are two maps of the same geographic region that convey very different ideas. (Image Source: Naud 2012)

“Critical cartography,” and critical GIS in particular, is a response to this hegemonic exercise of power. Its application to the field of environmental impact assessment (EIA) would ensure meaningful participation with local communities in an effort to create maps that accurately reflect worldview of local inhabitants. Since GIS is a computer mapping tool it operates on technical expertise, which prevents local knowledge from being involved. Harris and Weiner describe this practice as “structural knowledge distortion” (Harris and Weiner, 2002, p. 247) due to the way local communities are systematically excluded from participating.

“Shape of village boundary, distribution of road network, housing units, water streams, other prominent features are drawn by the community on the ground” (Kumara 2008)

I believe that GIS would be an excellent platform for disseminating traditional ecological knowledge, and give indigenous groups more decision making power over how their natural resources are managed. In Alberta, the Little Red River Cree Nation collaborated with a university research team to collect “temporal (i.e. generational experiences) and spatial knowledge (i.e. expertise of the functioning landscape)” (Natcher and Hickey, 2002, p. 360). This “bottom-up,” local data was used to inform environmental management decisions which benefited the community and the environment.

If this data were also used to create a visual representation of the Cree’s land, I believe it would help foster a sense of mutual understanding between First Nations groups and natural resource management regimes. When indigenous research participants were asked to identify the most important ecological feature of their landscape, they had a hard time understanding the question (Natcher and Hickey, 2002, p. 354). The Cree view the environment holistically, rather than the sum of its parts; how could they identify only one environmental feature when all of them are required for a healthy ecosystem? This mode of thinking is diametrically opposed to dominant EIA practices, such as the identification of VECs, which places an emphasis on a few features of high ecological or cultural value.

Under the Harper government, accelerated resource extraction on a national level is the name of the game; the environmental consequences are secondary to economic gain. Indigenous groups represent a counterpoint to this mode of thinking, and their voices must be included in the “production of truth” if we are to avoid ecological collapse.


Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972 – 1977. New York: Random House Digital Inc.

Harris, T. M. & Weiner, D. (2002). Implementing a community-integrated GIS: perspectives from South African fieldwork. In William J. Craig, Trevor M. Harris, Daniel Weiner (Eds.), Community Participation and Geographic Information Systems. (pp. 246 – 258). London and New York: Taylor & Francis.

Natcher, D. C., Hickey, C. G. (2002). Putting the community back into community-based resource management: A criteria and indicators approach to sustainability. Human Organization, 61(4), 350 – 363

Naud, D. (2012, November). Critical GIS. GEOG 363: Geographic Information Systems. Lecture conducted from Concordia University, Montreal.

University of Peradeniya. (2008, October). Application of Participatory GIS for Rural Community Development and Local Level Spatial Planning System in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka: B.A.U.I. Kumara. Retrieved January 21st, 2013 from:


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