11 February 2008


One job I had in Jamaica when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer was a stint as a Map Technician, in the Western Regional Office, of the Government of Jamaica Ministry of Agriculture, in Montego Bay. I was attached to a Government of the Netherlands project that had purchased a banana "walk" that was probably the upstream reaches of an old sugarcane plantation, centuries old.

I knew the scion of the planter family who still worked the plantation--over three centuries in his family--and who ran its sugar mill. I experienced the country's extreme social stratification firsthand, hobnobbing with people who had five-bedroom houses with swimming pools and servants; and dirt-floor people in the bush, where I built a one-room house--no water, no electricity--on a high, rocky tor at the end of a goat path, overlooking Montego Bay.

My job was to subdivide the banana property, on a plat map, into viable, smallholder plots to be distributed to peasant farmers, using a formula that included the USDA soil-classification system (includes soil type and land slope) and landscape features including existing roads and the Montego River.

As I think back, I know a problem that the project did not consider: The fact that the meandering river was eroding the riverbank into some plots but not others. Some Jamaican smallholders, surely, have lost valuable bottom land. The durative code of the map--its temporality--was too thin. It was a cartographic snapshot in present tense
that did not gaze into the future of that agro-landscape.

I hope there are no machete fights today over property boundaries as I platted them. In this case, map authorship--and blame--is clear: It is I.

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