Visualizing a landscape and understanding the location of its hills, rivers, and trees, and how they interconnect, can be difficult—even for people born and raised in a place, with maps and images as aids. Because of the challenge of accurately envisioning land area, at many of our project sites EcoLogic encourages community members to work together to create three-dimensional geographic models of the area they wish to sustainably manage.
The process of creating these topographic models is very much a community-based effort. Our field technicians provide the community with Google map images and information generated by a geographic information system (GIS) to help with accuracy, and then the community participants meet to begin the process. The exercise in creating these representations is valuable in and of itself, as many times community members disagree about where a particular geographic feature is, or what it looks like, or even if it exists at all. Often participants will take field trips to assess and confirm how their designs for the model reflect the realities of the landscape.
Once community members reach a general agreement about the features and layout, tasks for construction are divided up among the team: mixing the papier-mache, drawing the placement of different features based on the GIS images, and cutting boards and nailing them together. This process is done in rounds to give each member of the team an opportunity to work on each step. Finally, the papier-mache is used to construct the model, topographical features are painted, and other details, such as signage, trees and homes, are added.
With the completion of the topographic model, which represents the current state of the place, the community begins to discuss and assess problems in the ecosystem and identify why things are the way they are. There are no trees on the mountain because they were all removed for firewood, for instance, or the creek bed is empty because there are no trees in the watershed area. Once the community is in general agreement about the causes for these problems, a second topographic model is created to show how they would like the area to look—an ideal future—when reforestation and other activities have successfully taken hold.
An important tool for community collaboration, topographical modeling helps community members understand current challenges, and literally visualize a brighter future with successful natural resource management in place.