Interview with Gabriela Ruales, member of the Critical Geography Collective in Ecuador
How was the Critical Geography Collective (Colectivo de Geografía Crítica) formed and what role do you play in accompanying indigenous peoples in the defense of their territories and against extractivism?
The Colectivo de Geografía Crítica emerged in 2013, approximately 2012-2013, and was created precisely to question the way of understanding or doing geography in Ecuador from a national logic of the nation-state, of territorial order, to dispose of or to order territories, from a state-business extractivist agribusiness agenda. That is to say, based on capital or a more urban-mercantile order.
The collective arises from the idea of critically questioning this way of understanding geography in Ecuador, and then we also expanded to articulate with other territories beyond Ecuador. The collective arises precisely from examining what has been generated geographically, spatially, territorially, and the relationships configured in that spatial gaze. From the beginning, as a collective, we began to support organizational processes and struggles, precisely from this critical analysis of reality that the state and capital want to impose on us.
Therefore, our work has been focused on collaborating with social organizations, with social movements, and thereafter with the struggles of indigenous peoples in Ecuador, which is where we have mainly focused our work. From the start, our first projects were in support of anti-extractivist struggles in the Ecuadorian Amazon, especially against oil industries, and in recent years, we have been focusing much more on the anti-mining issue because mining is also deepening in our country.
From the collective beginnings until today, we have strengthened and focused our support and work to bolster the struggle in organizational processes and to build a different kind of cartography, a different way of looking at the territories, at the geographical space and the relationships that arise in that space. We do so by questioning the state-capital logic but also by emphasizing other relationships that exist in the territories that do not respond to this logic of state and capital. This has been our work throughout years.
Is the collective made up of academics or also activists who have been trained to do mapping?
It’s a group of resistance, that is, of activism, but it emerged as a space of resistance, to place our work at the behest of the social struggle and protest, the social movement. It is a space of resistance, mainly. Not all of us are geographers (I’m not a geographer), but I think that enriches the collective space because we come with a view from different disciplines, from different political and life experiences. Also, most of those of us who make up the collective are part of other organizational spaces. I come from the feminist movement in Ecuador, for example, and so do other colleagues who also come from the feminist movement, or the agroecological struggle, or the environmental movement. And there are also colleagues who are academics, and of course, it is also made up of people who know geography, who make maps, who manage GIS [Geographic Information Systems], that is, they have studied geography as a career.
This is how we diversify the collective, how we work, and also place a different type of analysis, ways of looking at the work we do.
Could you give me a couple of examples of what Critical Geography has been doing to support the social struggle? I am thinking, for example, of the work you have been doing around extractivist projects and the pandemic as well as the mapping of repression during the national strike in October last year.
The most recent work we’ve done is hold three virtual forums to launch these reports that we published in 2018 and 2019 about several territories in the Amazon where there are conflicts over oil and mining extractivism. This was done through information gathering we did in collaboration with the Ecuadorian Ombudsman and with other local organizations.
Our work also, right until before the pandemic, was to visit the different territories to create mappings with traditional cartography, which is Cartesian, and then map processes with social cartography and also from feminist geography and with other methodologies that we have been adapting to our work. This led us to make six reports and launch them at our first virtual forums.
But we also have previously published works, maps published and in-person presentations to share our work and show how we create these products, these final mappings. We have worked a lot on the Yasuní [National Park], for example, at different times, collecting data, visiting that territory, articulating with other geography groups that collect satellite information.
We have also articulated our work with other spaces, with other groups, with other geography organizations, but also diverse ones. That has been our job, to also strengthen the struggle and the dissemination of this work that we do.
What do you think has been the most successful project so far, where you have had the most impact?
I believe the feminist work that we distributed and carried out as a collective, which has been quite important. We have had quite a few achievements on that side, in regards to its dissemination, to help place official complaints, and for support and in coordination with other groups and organizations.
For example, between 2016 and 2017, we carried out mapping of femicides in Ecuador in coordination with other organizations and groups, and that for us was super important because it was the first mapping of femicides ever carried out in Ecuador by a collective or social organization, in conjunction with other feminist colleagues. The work we did helped make the fight against femicides more visible and gather support. It was inspired in the work of colleagues from Mexico who had already been doing these mappings of femicides for years, or doing more concrete actions from a spatial analysis of how femicides occur and how they permeate into the bodies and lives of women, and other gender identities, which are also considered femicides. We also began collecting information on cases of violence against women, which allowed us to make this reality visible as well.
What maps allow us is to graph, to show reality in a visual way, which is visually impactful and provides additional information that simple number and text data does not give you. What a map creates is also a graphic synthesis that allows for greater outreach and perhaps a greater social impact with that outreach.
We did the same kind of mapping with the criminalization of abortion in Ecuador, since it is still illegal here in various instances, which helped the fight for the decriminalization of abortion through graphic work of territorial analysis.
On the issue of extractivism and support for the struggles of indigenous peoples, the Yasuní issue is a big reference. For many reasons, Yasuní has become a very big fight. The maps that we created have helped support that big struggle and have been used during court trials and hearings against the state, for example.
This year we have also been working to support the Waorani people. We worked to support a lawsuit of the Waorani people against the Ecuadorian state, for example, because it became evident that the Ecuadorian state has been building a highway, in the middle of the pandemic, that is approaching the intangible zone of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. This threat from the highway and also the number of cases of COVID-19 in the Yasuní territory shows how oil companies have been using their influence to continue to expand. The oil, mining, and agribusiness haven’t stopped: they haven’t quarantined at all.
That led the Waorani people to file a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian state, and we gave our support by creating maps as indicators of those areas affected prior to the pandemic and during the pandemic, and how the highway’s expansion is threatening their lives and the lives of people in voluntary isolation.
What our work wants to achieve, mainly, is strengthen the social struggle, to denounce and unsettle those who create policies and practices to distress different territories, including the bodies, our bodies, as an exercise of power and intersected by capitalism.
You mentioned Cartesian mapping vs. feminist mapping. What is the difference between the two?
Cartesian mapping has been most commonly used and disseminated as the world’s standard mapping. This kind of mapping arises for the colonization of spaces: they are maps that indicate empty territories, based only on geographies, on hydrography. These territories lack everything that happens inside those territories, everything that spatially happens in them.
These georeferenced maps are ultimately useful, they are a great tool to understand what the planet is like, what the different latitudes are like, and so on. But what these maps lack is precisely the social and human relations, power relations, or the relations between people with nature, between peoples, and the conflicts that exist in them.
Maps are not just territories with perimeters…for those borderlines to exist there is a story behind them. That is, Cartesian maps lack the history of these relationships. For a country to have these borderlines, to exist, there is a history. Or while those borderlines exist, there is a a diversity of relationships, conflicts, agreements, disagreements, and so on, that shaped them. What Critical Geography, social and feminist geography do is precisely place the analysis that Cartesian geography lacks in its mapping.
This exercise of decolonizing Critical Geography, does it exist in other countries? I understand that you have been in communication with other groups.
Critical Geography has been around for a long time, many years, actually. We have been learning from the start. We realized in Ecuador there was a need to place critical analysis from a geographical point of view, as a discipline but also as a life practice.
We all inhabit a space, we are all geography, we do geography because we are inhabiting a place and we are a place: that is, our bodies are spatial and build spaces.
Brazil has been our main inspiration for Critical Geography. In Brazil there are a lot of people and a lot of history doing critical geography, they are a model we have studied and borrowed many ideas and proposals from.
In recent years, we also met several Critical Geography collectives from various Latin American countries. Last year we organized a Critical and Autonomous Geography Conference in Ecuador, where we met people from Chile, from Mexico. There are also several groups or people dedicated to Critical Geography from Costa Rica, from Colombia, from Guatemala. Critical geography has been diversifying … We also met colleagues from the United States.
And there is also a project carried out by a collective from Germany called Orangotango that published the Not An Atlas, which is an incredible project dedicated to identify collectives or people who make Critical Cartography, Critical Geography around the world. They published this huge book that included the work from various collectives in Latin America, in the north, in the south, in Europe, etc. We were super pleased with that project because it showed Critical Geography has a lot of history… important work that is supporting the resistance, social struggle, mobilization, and identification of other ways of making the world and of inhabiting it.