Recent scholarship has urged increased attention to how advances in geographical information systems (GIS) technology can more equitably help to bridge gaps between the theory and practice of environmental protection and dispute resolution. This study brings new evidence to burgeoning
debates in the Amazon, examining how a United Nations (UN) development initiative developed mapping systems in a shifting political climate for environmental governance while conducting campaigns with peasant miners to address environmental management. Amendments made in 2002 to the Brazilian
Forest Code established natural preserves according to the geographic features of watersheds. The laws deter commercial land use on preserves, imposing strict penalties where artisanal mining is widely prevalent as a livelihood. The UN program utilized GIS and Shuttle Radar imagery to map
the contested areas according to legal definitions and engaged stakeholders to discuss political implications. In 2006, new reforms made such mapping tools even more controversial—and urgent—with amendments that created opportunities for bringing “informal” mining into
the legal sphere, theoretically allowing “spaces of exception” where mining can be legitimated. Our multimethod study underscores the need for appreciating diverse understandings of ecologically sensitive zones and empowering rural communities to take ownership over geospatial
technologies in addressing environmental challenges. Although maps produced using the proposed methods could be useful, dominant advocacies that champion GIS as an enforcement tool often undermine local trust, inflame tensions, and render alternative “grassroots GIS” strategies
impracticable. We examine the contexts, powers, limitations, and risks of the UN's technical intervention, exploring how competing views of environmental controversy lead to divergent perspectives on the politics of GIS “knowledge translation” and mapping itself.
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