The Future of Environmental Law Mapping

By Laurent Granier

Ed. note: This article was originally published in Ecocy and is reprinted here with permission.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and mapping offer great opportunities for the transfer of legal data from books to maps.

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GIS applications have been evolving in many directions, well beyond geography. Many fields such as environmental economics, social science, health science and administration are now aggregated with scientific representations. The methods for environmental and social mapping are now participatory too. Together, these tools offer new, integrated visions of our territories (or anthromes) and could greatly assist environmental lawyers and policy makers.

Maps and plans have been considered legal tools in urban and planning law for a long time here in France. The "Plan Local d'Urbanismes" (formerly "POS") with its "graphical documents" are both legally binding. Sectoral environmental legislation also offers legally binding spatial representations, such as boundaries in protected areas, water catchments or industrial zones. In international law, the Counsil of Europe developed guidelines on coastal management (in French) that include "legal mapping" as a relevant tool (art. 26).

Part of our environmental legislation is made of data, standards and zones that make sense horizontally. Another strong tendency that should lead us to more legal mapping is the need to aggregate more and more rules and multiple statuses (of land). This applies both in developing and rich countries. There is, for example, no real understanding of the future of a protected area (PA) without looking to the diverse rules applying to its surrounding lands, forests, concessions, villages, etc.

In the case of participatory PAs mapping (in the Gabonese legislation for example), legal data in mapping can include:

- Representations of general laws and regulations, for example health rules on malaria applying to the entire country, the ban on fishing after 3 miles, general building rule, roads, etc.

- Specific laws and regulations. In the case of protected areas, rules are plenty. They include boundaries (usually through a law or decree creating limits, rules), the internal zoning with different affectations, the buffer zone, the zoning of local communities activities, the customary zones, corridors, etc. More interesting is the zoning of what surrounds PAs, such as clear identification of forest concessions, mining, industries, cities, private land, etc.

- Contractual rules can be represented too, such as local participation tools (local conventions, charters, bylaws) and international transboundary agreements.

In European and North American contexts, the multiplication of layers, and the necessary need to coordinate sectoral policies are leading managers to a greater use of mapping, in order to get a "better global picture." These online examples of legal mapping offer different perspectives on the challenges of representing rules. They usually do it through zoning, colours and associated obligations. Most of them show it is a tendency to use these compilation systems to aggregate geographical, ecological, administrative and legal data.

A great French online public tool allows users combine personalized maps with protected area status information (including biosphere reserves, bird nesting zones, EU birds and special conservation zones, and of course all the "classical" protected areas).

Addwijzer is another innovative program. It is an EU eContent project that succeeded in demonstrating how planning laws could be integrated into maps in the Netherlands. According to Dr. David R. Newman, Queen's University Belfast, a Member of the PGIS network, Framfab used the IMRO codes that a Dutch project had created to add laws to maps of the district plans, and added rules that you could use to quickly find areas where a particular kind of development is legal. The tool is still under development.

For more examples with lots of potential for environmental education, see this compilation of online mapping data about protected areas in Southeast Asia, or the Google Earth apps on marine protected areas.

Law and policy makers may promote these legal mapping tools to a greater extent in the future. They give a big, clear picture of the numerous rules now applying to any zone, they can be made democratically, by involving stakeholders (from international to local - participatory mapping), they help administrators taking more sound land management decisions and also allow us to better plan for the future (particularly in adaptation to climate change perspectives). Hopefully environmental maps and plans will become more and more legally binding.

Published Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Written by Laurent Granier

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