This Brazilian mapping group uses geotechnology to give women opportunities in STEM
From the lush depths of the Amazon rainforest to the vibrant bustle of Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, Brazil is home to many terrains — and people. It's a vast country made up of an intricate patchwork of 26 states each with its own cultures, diversity and landscape. They also have their own unique environmental and societal challenges. Meninas da Geo, a volunteer geotechnology group, is taking matters into its own hands to address some of these challenges in its home state of Pará.
Meninas da Geo is a women-led mapping group which was formed in 2019 from an offshoot of students and faculty from the Federal Institute of Education (IFPA), Science and Technology of Pará — specifically those on the Agronomy and Agriculture course. In 2020, Meninas da Geo became a partner of the Federal Rural University of the Amazon (UFRA), which has helped it reach more communities in the interior and rural parts of Pará.
Professor Tatiana Para, the founder of Meninas da Geo, says, “[Meninas da Geo] is a network to support and empower girls and women in STEM fields through geotechnologies. We provide courses, training, project development opportunities and mapping research across Pará.”Para’s description is direct. What has evolved since its beginning is much more than just a group that provides training. And not only does it benefit students, but many women and communities across the Amazon region of Pará.
Members of Meninas da Geo are women and girls from northeastern municipalities of Pará, most come from rural communities where family farming is the main source of income and work, says Para.
In their daily lives, some members have experienced harassment, sexism, violence and marginalization, which has negatively affected how they approach work and education. It can also prevent them from obtaining the skills they need to represent themselves in their communities and pursue work to support themselves.Being part of Meninas da Geo, however, provides them with the safety, skills and knowledge to pursue safe paths into the world of work — particularly in STEM fields, where many former members are now employed.
Since its founding, the group has trained almost 2,000 women in the region. They’ve trained Quilombolas, Afro-Brazilian residents of quilombo settlements — quilombo is the name given to the communities and settlements established by slaves that escaped from plantations. They’ve also trained women from riverside and indigenous groups that live in isolated communities on and around the Amazon River.
For many of us, we see every day how technology can empower people and create new opportunities to study and understand the world around us. However, for people that are not technologically connected to the world, groups like Meninas da Geo play an important role in bridging that gap.They also broaden representation of marginalized groups and provide safety and opportunities for girls and women — and they do so through education.
Training leads to representation and ownershipAs part of Meninas da Geo, members learn how to use geotechnologies like OpenStreeMap and other GIS systems. They learn how to survey land, gather and use map data. Typical tasks include geo-referencing satellite images, mapping with drones, collecting GPS points, creating thematic maps and researching deforestation.“Once they are trained, our students take their knowledge and skills to their communities to create a large network for transferring knowledge and strengthening autonomy through the use of these geotechnologies,” Para says.For Meninas da Geo, and the wider mapping community, it’s also essential that they both share their knowledge and gain more knowledge from further afield. Salim Baidoun, Global Community Engagement Manager at TomTom, explains how significant it is for companies like TomTom to support local, grassroots mapping groups like Meninas da Geo and how valuable it is for TomTom to learn from them too.
“These groups are volunteers, and they sometimes need help and support to openly collaborate, and gain and share knowledge,” he says. “We see their enthusiasm, we see their challenges, so we try to create a formula where the outcome is supporting them in their goals and helps them contribute to the map.”
TomTom supports Meninas da Geo in several ways: through trainings, by holding Mapathons, OSM map editing parties and setting Maproulette challenges, Salim says. Maproulette is a micro-task platform where people and organizations can set mapping challenges, to focus mapping efforts on a particular region.From left to right: Nicole Abreu, Sales Manager TomTom; Professor Tatiana Para, Head of Meninas da Geo; Yanna Monteiro, Translator; and Salim Baidoun, Community and Partnerships TomTom. Professor Tatiana Para represented Meninas da Geo at a mapping and geotechnology conference in Rotterdam. Whilst in the Netherlands, she swung by the TomTom office in Amsterdam where Salim hosted a meet and greet.
Using these techniques, TomTom helps Meninas da Geo raise awareness of its mapping activities and can even direct people to help specific mapping challenges. It also furnishes them with useful skills they can use immediately.
“They had almost beginner knowledge on how to do edits in the OSM environment. We came to them, gave them training and we taught them a lot of guidelines to follow,” Salim says.This knowledge is incredibly valuable, especially when the nearest computer might be hundreds of miles away.
“Some of these women have to travel five or six hours just to reach a computer lab,” Salim adds. “The Amazon area they work in is made up of a lot of remote communities, and they want to make sure these isolated people are connected towards the same map in a way that’s meaningful for them, researchers and studies.”Taking these skills to the local community allows Meninas da Geo members to develop geospatial products that serve and support their local communities. With geotech tools and knowledge about the land around them, locals take a big step forward in the pursuit of achieving autonomy and ownership of their land.
Filling the cartographic void
Indeed, the value of these skills reaches far beyond the students that possess them. They go on to help local communities in the Amazon area of Pará in the struggle of demonstrating and taking ownership of their land and what they produce there.“Our Amazon region is still permeated by a ‘cartographic void’, and we are still struggling to own our land,” Para explains.
Ownership of land is a national concern in Brazil. At present, the country is moving forward with legislation to enforce the demarcation of land that should belong to indigenous people — studies show this can lead to a significant drop in deforestation. However, deciding and communicating where those demarcations should be is not simple, and if local communities are not skilled in mapping or geotech, they may not be fairly represented in discussions over the demarcation. With these skills, they can represent themselves.“Geotechnologies are important decision-making tools, they help us know the territories and manage environmental and land registers,” Para says. “We believe that with solid training in geotechnology we will create a network capable of mapping and documenting their spaces to fight for a more sustainable Amazon. One that also minimizes the distance between girls and the geotech world.”
Maps and geotechnology as a tool for change
Professor Para says the group doesn’t have any plans for the future. Instead, they have goals for the present. From their work in geography and mapping they know how often the world changes and how dynamic it is — the future is unpredictable, she explains.Para says, “We will certainly be bigger, an NGO, an association, or perhaps a large service cooperative for mapping the Amazon.”Hopefully Meninas da Geo does continue to grow, because it’s about a lot more than just making maps and providing extracurricular activities for students.
Providing members with the safety, skills and knowledge to safely pursue work in STEM fields under their own steam, Meninas da Geo represents a big and valuable opportunity for many of the group, especially those who come up against sexism, harassment and experience marginalization.
The group demonstrates how powerful maps, location and geotechnologies can be for empowering girls, women and underrepresented communities that find themselves on the other side of the tech divide. The position Meninas da Geo occupies becomes a core part of the communities it touches. Providing knowledge, skills and representation for groups that need it most, to the benefit of many.
The group’s work truly represents the close relationship between people and maps, and is exemplified no less by its motto, which is borrowed from the Afro-Brazilian philosophy: “Eu sou porque nós somos — I am because we are.”
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