Despite having a Gold Duke of Edinburgh award, I’m embarrassingly awful at working with maps. Yet, while I probably couldn’t successfully orienteer my way to the fridge and back, I have been getting very excited of late learning about all the different things you can use maps for when it comes to policy and advocacy work.

My interest in maps had originally been sparked by some of our partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who are engaged in conflict monitoring work. As this data has both a geographic and temporal dimension, I was interested to see how we could organise and communicate this complex data in a way that makes it easier for the target audience to digest and understand, be that policymakers or the public. It seemed to me that a map might be a nice solution to this (and I’m always in favour of anything that avoids a spreadsheet or a scatter graph).

Over the last few weeks I’ve really enjoyed getting my nerd on; talking to experts and others in the NGO world who are using maps in their work. However, what I’ve realised is that you don’t need to be a technological whiz to get on. ‘Social mapping’ (basically building a map with a group of people based on their understanding of the land) is quite widely used already in development and can be just as useful in an advocacy context.

I’d like to share with you a few examples of how one of our partners in the Philippines is using electronic and social maps to strengthen its advocacy work to promote community land use planning and reduce community vulnerability to disaster. I hope these examples will give you a flavour of how maps can be used to contribute to contextual analysis and understanding, and to effective communication- both of which are core elements of strong advocacy.

In the Philippines, the government determines land use on a large scale. This sometimes means that some of the land that falls within that large area is not suitable for the purpose for which it has been categorised at a macro level. The effect of this is can be, for example, that land suitable for farming cannot be exploited if it has been officially designated forest land or, on the flip side, that land designated for agriculture may not necessarily be arable land. This has serious implications for livelihoods and food security, not to mention that inappropriate land use can lead to landslides, droughts and flooding.

To address some of these issues, civil society in the Philippines has been calling for a national land use policy. And to contribute to this advocacy effort, one of CAFOD’s partners, Ecoweb has been doing social mapping with people at a local level to document land use and community vulnerabilities. Maps can be a very simple way of demonstrating your evidence-base for advocacy. In this case, the finished map is used to communicate with local authorities about the implications of official land use and to advocate for where changes need to be made. The map has also proved effective in raising civic awareness about the link between the way communities use land and disaster risk reduction (DRR).

To give another example, Ecoweb has been working with a community to build a social 3D map which they place under a glass cover and use as a desk for their meetings with officials. This allows them to constantly refer back to the land in question, taking it from an abstract political issue to a physical reality. In other cases, they have merged/overlaid official maps with an electronic map (generated from the social map) to demonstrate disparities between legal land borders and indigenous understandings of traditional land titles.

I was particularly intrigued by why they were using 3D mapping- how is that any more helpful than a regular map (other than all the papier mache fun to be had)? In one context where Muslim and Christian communities are in conflict over land, Ecoweb found that using a flat map was confusing to local people. Rarely does anyone intuitively think of land as something one dimensional or ‘flat’. In fact, Ecoweb found that using a flat map when trying to mediate community conflict actually served to exacerbate tensions by reinforcing a distorted view of the land.

As a different approach, Ecoweb took the communities physically to visit the disputed areas of land in question. Interestingly, this also contributed to a rise in tensions as people were reminded of all the conflict that had happened on the land they were standing on. To strike a balance between being too removed from the reality of the land and too emotionally connected to the land, the partner found 3D mapping to be the perfect solution. It allowed communities to see the ‘bigger picture’ of the conflict situation whilst allowing them to be sufficiently removed from the immediate conflict context.

Of course, as a word of warning, maps aren’t always the solution- not everything is best represented on a map. And, if used inappropriately, they can serve to drive conflict and reinforce damaging messages (and colonial legacies). A key lesson we learned from the Philippines case was that the experience of the partner in conflict-sensitive facilitation was immensely important.

So, in summary, maps are cool- fact. They have so many uses and have real potential for strengthening advocacy work at all levels. I for one will be interested to see how I can use maps more in my work with partners and would be happy to hear from anyone willing to share their own experiences in this area.

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