Arid Lands Newsletter (link)No. 53, May/June 2003
Using geospatial technologies to develop
participatory tools for natural resources management

Editor's note:
Linking geospatial technologies with social science: A powerful tool for development?


Over the last decades, the increasing power of remote sensing and other geospatial technologies has led them to be widely used for monitoring of natural systems such as precipitation and vegetation cover. However, it is only relatively recently that social scientists have begun to incorporate geospatial technologies into their work, and vice versa. This lack of collaboration has many roots:

  • The variables of greatest interest to social scientists, such as tenure systems, government policies, and distributions of wealth and power, are not readily observable by geospatial technology.
  • Until recently, social scientists have been more concerned about why things occurred than about where they occurred.
  • Not just the technologies, but also the entire scientific tradition, of the geospatial and social science communities are quite different, leading to lack of familiarity and even disinterest between the two groups.

However, the reasons for collaboration are becoming ever more compelling, particularly as scientists in a variety of disciplines increasingly grapple with issues like sustainable development and global climate change, that cut across all disciplines. Understanding and resolving the problems arising from such issues necessitate that we understand not only human impacts on the environment but also environmental impacts on humans. Linking together the data generated by geospatial technologies with the data gathered by social scientists has great potential for helping us develop this understanding.

In this issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter, we focus on one aspect of "developing this understanding"--that is, the task of developing participatory tools for natural resources management. This task directly links geospatial technologies and social science, and the articles herein explore various of the difficulties overcome, successes achieved to date, and challenges still faced by those involved in this work.

One of the major barriers to overcome in developing such tools is the sheer technical differences, in terms of both scale and nature, between geospatial data and social science data. Remotely sensed data are typically quantitative and gathered at a spatial scale ranging from at least several hundred meters to one or even several kilometers. Social data, by contrast, are often gathered at the individual or household level. They are often qualitative rather than quantitative, and even when quantitative, may address indicators that are not directly measurable by geospatial technologies. Furthermore, any discussion of participatory tools implies that, at a minimum, such tools must be developed with input from, and must in the end be truly accepted by, the on-the-ground managers who will actually use them.

One initiative that has tackled these issues is the Livestock Early Warning Systems (LEWS). Initially developed for East Africa, the LEWS suite of technologies has more recently been adapted for application in pilot projects in Texas. This offers an opportunity to explore how resource management tools must be tailored for each specific end-user community in order to be accepted by that community. Dr. Jerry Stuth and his colleagues from Texas A&M University describe how the LEWS technology works and identify emerging issues regarding end-user communities' adoption of the information generated by this technology.

In terms of promoting a sense of "local ownership" of participatory NRM tools, involving the end users in the design and development of such tools from the very beginning has proved to be crucial. One project that has rigorously pursued this approach is the RangeView project housed at the University of Arizona, described here by Dr. Barron Orr and his co-authors. RangeView is designed to assist resource managers in the western US to manage vegetation dynamics through time and over large areas; its development has been user-driven from the project's inception.

But the descriptions of these two projects should not lead readers to assume that, once the technical challenges of combining geospatial and social data are overcome, developing participatory tools for natural resources management is an easy task. In fact, as time has gone on both the geospatial and the social science communities have increasingly recognized that this is, at best, the first step. As the integration of geospatial and social data in GIS-based tools for development has continued apace, so too have criticisms of the way such tools are often developed. These criticisms generally revolve around issues of equity and access, for example:

  • What parts of the community are actually benefiting from (or "empowered" by) the tool being created?
  • What knowledge or communities, if any, are being "privileged" by either overt or innate biases in the tool being developed?
  • How can training and education in the use of these systems be guaranteed to all members of a community, especially those marginalized populations who are, ideally, the benefactors of sustainable NRM?
  • How can it be assured that the material contained within the GIS will be presented in a manner that is both contextually and culturally appropriate for the target end-user community?

Both in developing countries and in marginalized communities in more developed nations, as GIS-based tools become more widely incorporated in development projects and decision-making, concerns that they will only strengthen a top-down development orientation have also increased.

This has led to efforts to use GIS technologies in ways that both incorporate and benefit the needs and capabilities of the communities actually targeted by the development efforts: involving the community in the production of data, valuing and incorporating local knowledge into the system, and providing the community with ownership and control over its own subsequent decision making, are all objectives of such efforts (which have been variously addressed as Public Participatory GIS, Community GIS and Participatory GIS). As the remaining three articles in this issue demonstrate, efforts to implement these types of GIS are still in a very early stage: promising, yet problematical.

In their article, Drs. Harris and Weiner of West Virginia University provide an overview of the development of PGIS and, based on their work in South Africa, propose an interim model they call Community GIS (CiGIS). CiGIS acknowledges that, for the time being, many developing countries are plagued by infrastructure and capacity building constraints to the extent that a truly participatory GIS is not possible. Thus, they propose that various community-based organizations (NGOs or government agencies) act as the primary interface for collection and dissemination of GIS-based information for participatory management.

But turning to government agencies and NGOs is not a foolproof strategy either. As. Dr. Wolfgang Hoeschele of Truman State University demonstrates in his paper, lack of knowledge and/or communication among such agencies, as well as between them and end-user communities, can constitute serious barriers to development of participatory tools for sustainable resource management. This does not mean the problems are insurmountable; rather, the author's intent is to caution others who may undertake such projects that they must be aware of these potential problems and address them when developing such tools.

The final article of this issue describes a participatory project undertaken in Lebanon to incorporate local knowledge in the development of agroecological zone maps for the three study areas in the project. This goal was achieved, yet the author, Dr. Rami Zurayk, raises yet more fundamental points about potential barriers to achieving sustainable development even when local participation is assured. The real question is still whether the lives of local populations will then really be bettered by the tools developed or the goals reached; this question goes beyond PGIS to the current development model itself.

Taken all together, the articles in this issue paint a picture of a merging and deepening of technologies that has real potential for supporting the development of participatory tools for natural resources management. Such tools are in their infancy, and the pitfalls in developing them -- both technical and sociopolitical -- are many. But the potential is clear, and should be pursued.

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