Geospatial Technologies Working for Environmental and Social Justice

By Victoria A. Lawson

The discipline of geography has much to contribute to understandings of crucial issues of environmental and social justice from global to local scales of analysis and action.In this article, I focus on how geospatial technologies can be employed to devise policies that represent a range of perspectives on environmental and social processes such as deforestation, urban sprawl, drought and pollution.But let's first set the stage by considering these trends in urbanization and environmental change.
  • The world has lost nearly half its forested area in the past 8,000 years, and the majority of that loss occurred in the 20th century, when cultivated area expanded rapidly and consumption of wood and paper jumped dramatically.(
  • By the end of this decade, more than half of the world's population will live in cities, making humanity a predominantly urban species for the first time in its history.Most of the world's cities, however, impose a huge burden on the environment and fail to provide decent living conditions for millions of people.For example, fuels burned in cities generate over three-quarters of global carbon emissions from human activities.And some 600 million to 1 billion urbanites lack adequate shelter, living without easy access to clean water, toilets, or electricity (
  • Urban sprawl spreads development out over large amounts of land; puts long distances between homes, stores, and job centers; and makes people more and more dependent on driving in their daily lives.Sprawl destroys more than two million acres of parks, farms and open space each year (
  • Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color bear disproportionate environmental burdens.These communities are more frequently chosen as sites for polluting facilities -- such as oil refineries and incinerators -- over wealthier, predominantly white communities that have more political power and demonstrated organizing abilities.(
How are geographers contributing to understanding and responding to these challenges? Geographers have much to contribute through our 'geographic advantage' or the analytical sensibilities that geographers bring to their work. These include: attention to the spatial variability or place-dependence of processes; analysis of processes operating at multiple, intersecting spatial scales; and concern for nature-society relationships.By framing questions about environmental and social justice geographically - looking at how they work out in specific places, or questioning assumptions about the scales of such processes - we can reveal counterexamples and unintended outcomes that prompt us to revisit our theoretical assumptions and established policies.

One key component of social and environmental inequality in many parts of the globe is the disjuncture between official (often articulated at national or international scales) and community or indigenous (often local scale) understandings of land use, flood and irrigation priorities, or urban development.Addressing these issues in inclusive ways means empowering groups who have historically been marginalized from resource allocation and decision-making.Geographers are working with non-governmental organizations to understand these disjunctures and to increase attention to participatory mapping, community data interpretation and display with GIS.These approaches attempt to bring together state economic development planning with meaningful public participation which identifies and includes indigenous knowledge and community concerns.

For example, Paul Robbins' work has demonstrated the limitations of the Indian State's remote sensing land use classifications as a development planning tool in Rajasthan, India.Official classifications of 'forest' and 'waste land' made on the basis of remote sensing images often drive national land use management policies.Together with Tara Maddock, Robbins demonstrates that local residents define and use those lands in very different ways.Some of the canopy cover classified as 'forest' from above is actually a highly invasive import of mesquite from Mexico which is crowding out indigenous ecologies and more desirable forest cover.And the lands categorized remotely as 'wastelands' actually serve invaluable cultural and economic roles as communal grazing lands for marginalized peoples in the area.An empirical technique of participatory land use classification draws on local interpretations and these data are then compared with state classifications using GIS. The resultant maps reveal differences as well as similarities in community and governmental environmental and spatial knowledge and allows all of these voices to be heard in the interpretation of the landscape and resultant policies.

Geographers are collaborating with non-profit groups across the globe to construct socially and environmentally just policies and programs.Geographers are researching participatory mapping projects designed to improve access to potable and irrigation water in India.In one drinking water supply project in Rajasthan, India, geographer Kathleen O'Reilly examined women's participation in both project design and monitoring.Women's groups in villages identified locations for communal standpipes and latrines during the planning phase of the project and were subsequently involved in management and maintenance of village water supplies.In another project in Krishna Valley, India Roopali Phadke, who is an environment-society scholar, researched the work of non-governmental organizations and activist villagers who produced an alternative design for the highly contested Uchangi dam in southern Maharashtra.These groups engaged in participatory watershed mapping to record resource endowments and constraints, land use patterns and local ecosystems.Local residents produced a data set from which detailed soils, ecosystem, land use and socioeconomic maps were produced and then used as tools to construct alternative plans for the dam and irrigation project. This 'people's science' project focused on limiting land loss and home submergence while increasing the areas benefiting from irrigation.These maps were then used in negotiations with the state to redesign the dam such that no community members lost their homes.

Another example of geographers employing geospatial technologies for social justice is found in Ecuador. In collaboration with the CIMAS Foundation this project brings researchers and community members into collaborative scientific research about environmental and living conditions and related health issues among members of indigenous communities in Northern Ecuador. Researchers work with community members to identify priority health care issues and to provide technical assistance to local organizations as they work to design alternative development strategies. Researchers undertake public health and epidemiological surveys in the community and the data are presented and analyzed using GIS technology.The results of this research are then used to raise funds from both the Ecuadorian state and international non-governmental organizations to improve the health status of the community.

Geographers are also founding groups like CommEn Space, a GIS group started by Eugene Martin, a geographer based in Seattle, WA. CommEn Space specializes in conservation work, providing technical expertise to a range of non-profit organizations such as environmental and community groups and Native American tribes.CommEn Space produces maps, landscape analysis and develops custom data for partners with no experience using GIS and maps, allowing them to tell their story or to learn to analyze their communities spatially.For example, CommEn Space helps conservation groups find ways to apply GIS and its related technologies to their work conserving land, protecting species or advocating for emerging issues. Following the listing of the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon to the Federal Endangered Species List, CommEn Space worked with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington State to develop a recovery plan that would govern restoration actions on Washington's Cedar River. CommEn Space is also working with Northwest Environment Watch to evaluate urban sprawl and urban smart growth. This project employed Landsat imagery and US census data to map impervious surfaces and population densities in order to compare urban change in Portland, OR., Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC.

These are just a few examples of how geographic questions and geospatial technologies are being put to work for social and environmental justice.In all of these examples, data collection, analysis and spatial representation are employed to construct policies that are more inclusive and attentive to the concerns and needs of groups that have often been excluded from decision-making.

Published Tuesday, June 8th, 2004

Written by Victoria A. Lawson

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