How to Negotiate with Maps

May 12, 2000

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Maps make interesting instruments for negotiation. The current round of talks in the Israeli-Palestinian land-grab focus now on a map presented by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. This map is now the catalyst for a solution or cause for further delay in talks. What’s at stake is nothing short of power, geopolitical power.

In his book “How to Lie with Maps”, Mark Monmonier provides ample evidence of and rationale for reality-altering cartography. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have a vested interest in having reality mapped according to their perspective. This is why a map makes such a powerful tool in the negotiating process. Decision-makers can sit around a table, and quite literally, carve out the future of nations, peoples, economies and lives. The implications of these cartographic decisions have to be fulfilled at the local level, where the line in the sand is figuratively and literally drawn.

It’s common to find areas in dispute represented differently on maps: India and Pakistan, Ecuador and Peru, Guatemala and Belize, Russia and Japan, Britain and Argentina, etc. These maps propagate the prejudices and bias of the map-making country, despite what reality may otherwise convey. This is all about power, national identity, historical fact and fiction, economics and above all, geography. Those that write the books tell the tale, and those that make the maps are masters of their geography.

The Israelis would like this map to be the working plan for future negotiations. The problem is, it’s an Israeli map and the Palestinians have refused to discuss it because it does not come close to their idea of Palestinian geography. Likewise, if the Palestinians produce a map of their vision of geography for the region, the Israelis would likely find it as difficult to accept. Whenever ideas or preferences are expressed spatially, people tend to pay attention because it is something they can relate to very easily. This is why surveys are so important when purchasing a home or property, except that this map was not likely “survey quality”, as my geodesy friends would say.

What is not known and would be very interesting to see, is whether or not any “objective” analysis was done to build this map. Can the negotiating team, including third party involvement, develop rules for geographic analysis that would produce a more robust, defensible map agreeable to both the Israelis and Palestinians? It is certainly possible to identify criteria and develop rules to apply those criteria in a geographic information system model, but the output of that analysis could be a counterproductive powderkeg. The fact is, neither side would really want to see such an analysis displayed on a map because. It’s defining criteria such as fragmentation of settlements, proximity to major cultural centers, historically significant locations, natural resources, religious imperatives, population, demographics and economics are relatively easy to accomplish. The task is in defining and modeling geopolitical aspects of various factions involved, the diplomatic aspects and the reality-based necessities of everyday life.

The devil is in the details indeed. While it’s presumed the map was created at a relatively small scale, implementation will occur at a very large scale, possibly dividing cities, towns and villages. Policy decisions made at such a generalized scale often do not account for the implications at the large scale. The actual cartographic line on the map that divides at a small scale covers significant real-estate at large scale, often in the most impractical and illogical places. Using natural features is all too convenient and dangerous, and using man-made features is too temporal. Case in point; when Nepal wanted to protect Himalayan forests from deforestation, it created a national preserve that prohibited logging. The decision was made based on country-level map and the boundaries were drawn. The villagers inside and just outside the preserve continued to harvest timber, albeit illegally. The cartographic scale was perhaps inappropriate for the decision being made. Similar situations have occurred in Madagascar, Amazonia, Africa and even at home here in Florida.

The map-based negotiations now underway will no doubt be very difficult, time-consuming and the epitome of compromise. It would be wise if the map making process could be as objective as possible, if there is such a thing, and that those involved recognize the power in using maps as a tool for communication, decision-making and policies and the fundamental premise of cartographic license. As pointed out by Monmonier, these issues are unfortunately lost on the general public, and the impressions, good or bad, are made from what is seen on first viewing the map.

Israel now needs to consider what revised version of the map it will present next, what it is willing to carve up and how to deal with the ramifications on the ground. The Palestinians need to be prepared to present their own map, as well as a willingness to view the map through the eyes of reality, whatever that becomes. Regardless, it is an interesting spotlight for cartographers everywhere even if we don’t get to steal the show.


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