April 23, 2020

“Citizen Cartography”


Knowledge is a prerequisite for participation. How maps become a weapon of social movements

On 6 May 2018 local elections were held in Tunisia for the first time. A mapping initiative supported by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in North Africa gave citizens the opportunity to actively participate in the discussion on the fair distribution of basic goods such as water or the right to a healthy environment, thus contributing to a progressive urban district policy.

Ivesa Lübben, director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Tunis, on the project “Citizen Cartography”.

“The State guarantees the right to information and access to information”, says Article 32 of the new Tunisian post-revolutionary constitution. But there are still gulfs between the constitution and everyday reality. Example: the right to water (Article 44) and to a healthy environment (Article 45). Tens of thousands of Tunisians have to walk more than one kilometre to the nearest water source. Tap water is often undrinkable and in summer the tap is turned off again and again. In Kasserine and Cairouane, schools have had to close due to hepatitis A. The cause was contaminated tap water.

In order for local initiatives and social movements to be able to discuss water distribution and quality, they need information that the state water company SONADE (Société nationale d’explotation et de distribution de l’eaux) refuses to provide. The Citizen Cartography project tries to close this gap. Project staff* collect data. With reference to the new constitution, they insist on the obligation to provide information to the authorities.

The data is prepared using open source software and presented in the form of maps and diagrams. In this way, correlations between environmentally harmful industries and diseases are made visible or the unequal distribution of income between the rich coastal regions in the east and the marginalised interior is made visible.

The project is a work in progress. Local initiatives can feed in their own data. For this purpose, workshops are organised in different parts of the country. It is the local activists who set the themes.

Ras Jebel is a small town on the north coast of Tunisia. In the past many young people emigrated to France because there was no work. Today people from the surrounding area move here to sew jeans in the Lee Cooper textile factories.

The participants in the cartography seminar have spread a large city map across a table and compare it with older satellite images of their city. Where do the newcomers and the old residents live? New districts were built wildly and unplanned on fields. Why is there no relationship between the old and the newcomers, not even among the young people? Despite the new textile factories, the old-established cannot find work that matches their qualifications. The participants* try to answer their questions with statistical data: How high are the wages in the textile factories? How many people work in the informal sector and how are they socially protected? How has the labour market changed? Where has the old handicrafts gone? It is in danger of disappearing because production is no longer profitable. What are the ecological consequences of the new factories? Heavy metals penetrate drinking water and soil. In Ras Jebel the cancer rate is higher than the national average. The sources of the pollution are localised and marked on the maps. Discussions arise from this: What can be done to combat pollution? Which environmental laws would be needed? Would cooperatives be a solution to save traditional handicrafts?

About 500 km further south lies Gabes. Strabo already described the beauty of the oasis by the sea – the only one of its kind – where many migratory birds stopped on their way from Europe to southern Africa. With its palm groves and orchards, in which pomegranates, apricots and peaches and citrus fruits grew, Gabes was “paradise on earth”, say the locals.

Today in Gabes, the permanent smell of rotten eggs is in the air. Since the early 1970s, the state-owned GCT (Groupe Chimique Tunisienne) has been processing phosphate into fertiliser. In recent years, other chemical factories have set up shop. The CGT declines all responsibility for the environmental damage. “We are confronted with a wall of silence,” says one of the participants* in the cartography seminar. And another adds: “They not only manufacture chemical production and environmental damage, but also information and a pseudo-civil society that spreads false information, for example about the quantities of water the industry extracts from aquifers or about the storage of dangerous substances such as cadmium”. Participants* in the workshop will create interactive maps showing the locations of polluting production facilities and diagrams of production cycles: the factories blow sulphur gases into the air. Environmentalists* have found residues of cadmium and caustic soda in the Gabes fields. The coasts are polluted by radioactive phosphorus sludge, which has decimated the once rich fish stocks.

The activists of the cartography project hope that many progressive local councils and local initiatives will use the maps and statistics as an instrument of participatory local politics for socially just urban development.

Knowledge is a prerequisite for participation. Knowledge is a fundamental right. Statistical data is a public good. That is the message of the project.

More on the project website.