Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Maps and Counter-Maps: Globalised Imaginings and Local Realities of Sarawak's Plantation Agriculture

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Maps and Counter-Maps: Globalised Imaginings and Local Realities of Sarawak's Plantation Agriculture

Article excerpt

Mr. Tan had gone to great length to criticise the other evidence adduced on behalf of the Plaintiffs some of which I have already mentioned and some I will not mention specifically but have considered them, and I am of the view that all of them do not affect the accuracy of the ground survey done by Samy with the help of the Plaintiffs and the folks of the longhouse and the map that Samy produced.... I find on a balance of probabilities that the disputed area (as shown in the map ...) was the area where the Plaintiffs and their ancestors had cleared for cultivation, accessed for fishing, hunting and to gather forest produce.... (1)

The power of maps to include and exclude peoples and territories has long been the subject of social science enquiry. Such work has taken account mostly of relations between nation-states or between metropolitan states and their colonies. There is, however, an emergent interest in the implications of mapping for relations within countries or regions. (2) Such interest derives from counter-hegemonic practices on the ground of community mapping, also referred to in some instances as counter-mapping. This article examines differences and overlaps in imagined spatial ideas of rural Sarawak which underpin official and community mapping. These variations provide a beginning for the process for staking a claim to territory--though they do not ensure it--and counter-maps are increasingly being used in defence of, or in making claims to, customary rights to land. (3) Using technologies employed by dominant groups, maps drawn by communities utilise memory (oral history) and markers (fruit trees, sites of old settlements) as tools for claiming territory and customary rights.

In Sarawak, where beginning in the 1990s development planning has aimed at transforming varied rural landscapes into homogenous plantations, community mapping of land claimed by native communities under customary rights has the potential to slow down the conversion process because of its tendency to emphasise local 'difference'. For disputes over borders between neighbours, community maps not only may help define boundaries more clearly but also bring the hope of control over disputed territory. However, in instances where assertions of control over borders and firm access to land, trees or fruit are disputed, counter-mapping may force communities to make claims over issues where flexibility has proved more advantageous in the past. (4)

In recognition that maps are not neutral instruments, the point has been made that community maps do not resolve inter-community disputes over borders or intracommunity conflict over access. (5) It is argued here, however, that such concerns may underestimate agency. Choice is exercised at the community level in such decisions as whether or not to engage in mapping, since by rural standards maps are costly productions. At the individual level, a decision has to be made as to whether or not one ought to be involved in mapping, either directly (by participating in drawing up community boundaries) or indirectly (by providing moral and material support). In addition, new meaning found through participation in the mapping process is a factor that should not be underestimated. (6) Since in Sarawak community maps are often utilised in relation to court cases mounted against powerful corporations, the choice to use the court system itself is a calculated one in the context of restricted options available to communities within the existing political opportunity structure. This article teases out the ways in which the manoeuvring room presently achieved via the courts is itself constrained by a need to frame claims in a language that is understandable to the judiciary; this language comes to fruition in claims made based on 'tradition' or adat.

A study of maps is therefore useful for unravelling dynamics of power, both political and economic, but it is also helpful in understanding the non-material 'interests' involved in political action to include the issue of meaning or imagination in politics. …

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