“Nothing about us, without us!” Originally used as a rallying cry in the disability community in the 1980s, and later as a motto heralding support for the “dignity, rights, and well-being of person with disabilities,” this phrase has come to have additional meaning for other underserved communities. James Rattling Leaf, Sr. of GEO Indigenous Alliance recently used this phrase to sum up his list of best practices for collaborating and partnering with indigenous communities at a Society for Conservation GIS webinar in April of 2021. “Science needs input from indigenous people,” said Mr. Rattling Leaf. “Indigenous knowledge and science is needed to re-establish our relationship with the Earth.”
For many years, conservation practices in the United States have been offered to underserved communities by people, mainly white men, with an air of benevolent paternalism. Indigenous communities, communities of color, women, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities have regularly experienced this behavior. More recently, these populations have taken more active roles in the process of conservation on their own lands and in their own communities. The geospatial technologies that have become part and parcel of mainstream conservation research and analysis have remained, however, relatively inaccessible to many. Time, money, and personnel are often more limited in underserved communities, and resources for conservation efforts are often not viewed as basic needs.
While representation of people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, and other underserved groups is increasing in mainstream conservation, they are still a small percentage of people in the discipline. Factor in the use of GIS, and the percentage of underserved groups represented in the field of conservation is even smaller … but changes are on the horizon.
GIS is critical to conservation
The ability to make maps using digital technologies has revolutionized the way we understand the Earth and the practice of conservation. GIS and other geospatial technologies are used to support research, planning and operational decision-making, and for asset management. Maps provide context about what needs to be protected, why these places and resources need to be protected, and who is affected by both use of these resources and conservation of these resources. GIS enables conservation professionals to access and utilize data relevant to their questions, but it has traditionally been limited to organizations with access to extensive resources.
Maps also show us patterns of history and the presence of discriminatory and exclusionary policies that “spatially segregate people.” If maps can show us how we are discriminating and whom we are discriminating against, it would make sense that the people who make maps should be the people who are in the community; however, underserved communities are more likely to lack access to expensive geospatial technologies and broadband technologies to access software and data. Larger organizations conducting conservation research using GIS are still primarily white and male … but times are changing.
With the rise in use of open-source GIS software, an increasing number of flexible spatial and non-spatial applications that can be run on mobile devices, and declining costs of hardware, GIS has become more accessible. Geography, geographic inquiry, and geospatial technology education is now available to more people at more levels – including K-12 teachers and students. Due to these changes in resource requirements, conservation GIS initiated and run by underserved communities is likely to surge over the next few years.
How can conservation experts build effective conservation practices in communities without engaging the people in the communities? Answer: They can’t. In order to build effective conservation practices, conservation professionals must build conservation practices with experts who are from and of the community.
How do we build a conservation practice that represents all people and all communities? We start by making the effort to:
- diversify the workforce within existing flagship conservation organizations and ensure that underserved communities are represented at all levels;
- establish practices of working with and within underserved communities;
- promote capacity-building measures;
- promote conservation, earth observation, and geospatial theory and technology at all levels of education, including early childhood, high school, and later career;
- support educators in understanding and communicating geospatial thinking; and
- promote open-source earth observation technologies in education and research.
If we can make resources available and accessible, we can harness the power of our differences and the strengths of our different communities to make positive change in the conservation GIS space for all communities. As individuals, organizations, and communities, we can use GIS and geospatial technologies to build relationships, develop meaningful conservation strategies, and transform the landscape of conservation GIS.