Landmines and the Politics of Violent Mapmaking

I was recently asked to review Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, a new book on post-conflict Bosnia and was impressed by its critique of reckless mapmaking. “Bosnia could only be destroyed,” co-authors Gerard Toal and Carl T. Dahlman argue, “through cartographic reenvisioning and then the preparation and use of massive violence to realize these cartographic schemes.” They show how, contrary to popular notions of the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a spontaneous eruption of “ancient hatreds”, bending the complex reality of human diversity in Bosnia to the nationalists’ “cartographic fantasies” required the systematic deployment of “radical place-destroying violence.”

It struck me as I was reading their book that, though they didn’t examine them in much depth, landmines played a crucial role in delineating the boundaries around these “cartographic fantasies.” That so many mines were laid is an indication of how much violent effort was required to  ‘unmix’ Bosnia’s cosmopolitan geography. To emplace a minefield is an exercise in violent mapmaking, an effort to draw an explosive border between an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’. Unsurprisingly then, demining has been integrated into massive international effort, described by Toal and Dahlman, that has gone into reversing ethnic cleansing. Nonetheless, this has not been a straightforward process — my research in Bosnia showed that the removal of mines has sometimes played into nationalist efforts to stymie and obstruct efforts to build a cosmopolitan future.

The mine action sector has somewhat of an obsession with maps. Walk into the offices of any demining agency and you will see walls plastered with maps of every scale, covered in red dots and “polygons”. What is somewhat surprising is that the sector as a whole tends to think of them rather straightforwardly and unproblematically. Toal and Dahlman come at maps from an alternative perspective, that of “critical geopolitics“, a broad critique of the social science tradition of accepting maps, borders and geography as unproblematic and “scientific.” For Toal and Dahlman, geopolitics is “less a determining location or a stable hierarchy”  than “a culturally embedded practice operating across networks of power” and a “field of competing political constructions.” A map tells you as much about the person(s) drawing it as the place that is drawn.

The demining map can be “deconstructed” in a similar way. Charles Mather has shown how mine action’s obsession with  technical expertise, ‘information management’ and geographic information systems (GIS) mapping functions to depoliticize and marginalize local community voices in planning demining efforts. He tries to unpack the mine map to show how it is a product of “cadastral politics”, not simply a “scientific” process. Similarly, in my research on South Sudan I found that unintentionally, coloring red on UN maps roads that were not verified as mine-free may have contributed to the marginalization of “remote areas” in distribution of humanitarian aid.

In short, demining can never be an entirely “apolitical” and technocratic process because minefields are artifacts of political conflict, an attempt by political actors to reshape territorial space. Everything about the process of mine clearance — from information gathering to map-drawing to removing ordancne — is intrinsically political.

To read my full review of Toal and Dahlman’s book, click here.

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~ by Matthew Bolton on 2 February 2012.

One Response to “Landmines and the Politics of Violent Mapmaking”

  1. […] small arms proliferation. He has written on this question, a hugely significant one, in Bosnia. He runs a blog called “Political Minefields” which features his personal reflections on the… Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark […]

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