Mapping a path to equity

In January 2011, Jeff DeGrave went to Río Negro, Honduras, an off-the-grid coffee-producing region and an area of extreme poverty. There, he was struck by people’s incredible resourcefulness, especially in fashioning hydro-microturbines out of metal scrap to generate electricity.

DeGrave, a Geography PhD candidate, began exploring the 'participatory mapping' technique used to distribute the microturbines to Río Negro residents. Now with help from a Consortium Intramural Research Award, he is designing a more equitable process.

“The notion that someone could create their own hydro-microturbine for the production of ‘free’ electricity by welding pieces of old school buses together was inconceivable to me,” he says.

The first microturbines were installed in 2002 using a surge of development funds after 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. The Río Negro community used ‘participatory mapping’ to create a way to manage and prioritize their distribution.

“Then I began to notice what seemed to be a trend among those who had the microturbines: they were typically upperclass, politically and/or internationally connected males, who lived close to a river,” says DeGrave. “In general, the poorest families did not receive the benefits of the electricity, one of which would be automating their coffee depulping machines.”

The mapping process in Río Negro showed the usual power imbalance between privileged and marginalized, but proved to be inconsequential in helping poorer people obtain microturbines. Despite its intended democratic nature, the process resulted in the more educated and socially astute residents being able to direct opportunities toward themselves.

At the time of his Río Negro visit, DeGrave was in the Geography PhD program at the University of Minnesota and following an interest in international development for disadvantaged populations, especially development done on a local scale by local residents. During his time in Río Negro, an idea for his dissertation bloomed. DeGrave wanted to explore the power imbalances related to participatory mapping through the distribution of microturbines and help identify possibilities for a more equitable distribution of resources.

Last year, DeGrave, who is a geography lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, decided to apply for a Consortium Research Award to fund his dissertation research. The Consortium awarded him $7,850 and that money has allowed him to make multiple trips to Río Negro and to enlist a recent Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras to serve as his entrée into the close-knit mountain village communities. With the people of Río Negro, he has begun creating a Map of Empowerment and a Map of Marginalization and hopes such a process will help other communities in the developing world handle the spread of technology more fairly.

“Without Consortium funding, access to the local residents would have been limited, at best,” says Degrave. “And, should I have been able to reach an equal number of individuals without Consortium funding, I am quite certain that the data I acquired, the willingness of the subjects to fully participate, and the comprehensiveness of my research would have been significantly compromised.”

DeGrave’s research is still in progress, but he recently presented his initial findings at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) West Lakes-East Lakes Regional Conference in DeKalb, Illinois, and plans to present more comprehensive results at the national AAG conference in Los Angeles this spring.