GIS Mapping as a Community Planning Tool

Critical Areas for Conservation Map

Critical areas for conservation in Central America.

In 2012 EcoLogic was contacted by a team of graduate students with a proposal: the five students from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers university had experience with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping that they wanted to apply in an international context. Might EcoLogic be interested in a collaboration that would help the students while producing maps for one of EcoLogic’s project sites?

Soon David Kramer, EcoLogic’s senior program officer, was in conversations with the students and their faculty advisor, Anton C. Nelessen, to identify the project site that would most benefit from such analysis. “Maps can be an easily accessible way to help people see how their behavior impacts their natural environment,” explains Kramer. “We’ve helped communities create topographic models— simple but accurate structures using wood, papier maché, and paint—that really change how people visualize their environment and make changes to protect it. We in the US have to remember that even simple maps are sometimes difficult to come by in remote parts of the world.”

Many of us in the developed world use GIS-based maps every day such as when we use Google Earth or Mapquest. Planners, conservationists and others use GIS to show the relationship between human population growth and forest loss in a particular area, for example, or how average temperature has risen while the amount or frequency of rainfall has changed. Such mapping can be particularly powerful as a tool to predict future outcomes and provide ways to assess interventions.

Sarstun Temash Fisheries Map

Areas threatened by overfishing in the Sarstun Temash region.

EcoLogic’s Healthy Fisheries project that straddles Belize and Guatemala along the Sarstun River, seemed a particularly appropriate place for mapping. The project brings together communities along a disputed international border where many are competing for the same resources. This has created a situation where jungle is disappearing, fish stocks are crashing, and clean drinking water is in increasingly short supply. One of the greatest impediments to the creation of these maps for the developing world is obtaining accurate data, and this was a challenge for the Rutgers team. In addition to information EcoLogic and its local partners provided, the team spent significant time “sleuthing” and uncovered useful data-sets generated by organizations such as the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Global Land Cover Facility, and universities in both Guatemala and Belize. Ultimately, the team succeeded in creating maps that show historically through to the present day how the area has changed and also illustrate how different environmental “drivers”—underlying causes of environmental change—may impact the region in the future.

As the culmination of their effort, the team traveled to the project site in January 2013 to meet with EcoLogic’s local partners and the communities they represent. They presented their findings to community groups, and also traveled with José Domingo Caal and Samuel Coc, two of EcoLogic’s field technicians. This provided opportunities for learning exchange: the students offered training in advanced GIS techniques, while José Domingo and Samuel provided practical insights into collecting accurate data when modern tools and conveniences are not available.

The Rutgers team also met with Greg Ch’oc, EcoLogic board member and execu- tive director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, and discussed practical ways to apply GIS mapping to help the indigenous peoples of the area fight for land tenure rights and against exploitation by foreign oil concerns. Said Warren Berry, one of the students, “we were really pleased to be working with EcoLogic. The organization has a unique niche—collaboration, learning exchanges, and information sharing are central to its mission. They really do what they say, and we could see it during our visit. We hope to do more work like this with them in the future.”

During this project, the Rutgers students formalized their partnership beyond the directed study, as Strategies for Equitable Development, LLC (SED).