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Role of Geospatial Technologies in Training for Sustainable Natural Resources Man-agement in Asia

Dr. Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt
Assistant Professor
Natural Resources Management
School of Environment, Resources and Development
Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok

Dr. Rajendra P. Shrestha
Assistant Professor
Natural Resources Management
School of Environment, Resources and Development
Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok

The objective of this paper is to explore the role that geospatial technologies can play in training for Sustainable and Integrated Natural Resource Management (INRM). For this purpose, some general reflections are presented at the beginning, on what an INRM curricu-lum is expected to provide in terms of training and education in order to build up Natural Resource Management (NRM) competence in students. From there follows an explanation, why land use and land cover change is considered a pertinent issue within an Asian regional context, and how a thematic focus on this topic with strong reliance on geospatial technolo-gies may help to build NRM competence. For the preparation of this paper the authors draw heavily on their experience as teachers at the Natural Resource Management Field of Study at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand.

1. Reflections on expected NRM competence
Natural resources are components of the natural environment, which fulfill functions in eco-system processes, and which are also useful or beneficial for humans. Many Asian develop-ing countries have not only experienced rapid economic growth in the past but also have rapidly lost or degraded their valuable nature resources base. As a result, today there are several environmental problems and natural resource management related issues that repre-sent immediate concerns for sustainable development of the region.

The aim of Integrated Natural Resource Management is to manage natural resources so as to achieve a balance between their functions for the quality of the environment and their func-tions for the quality of human life. Natural Resource Management has a very broad and complex scope, which requires a similarly broad set of skills and techniques cutting across various sciences and disciplines. It is the wideness of scope, which provides the main chal-lenge for capacity building in NRM. One of the priority concerns in NRM is gaining a better understanding of the ways that our environments are changing and how our activities inter-act and influence such processes. This can be achieved by systematically conducting the following NRM-related operations:

  • Assessment of the availability and condition of natural resources (mainly through inventory and monitoring techniques);
  • Analysis of problems, potentials, and perspectives (through a wide variety of ana-lytical methods from natural, social, economic, and political sciences; e.g. policy analysis, institutional analysis, livelihood analysis, analysis of ecosystem processes, impact analysis, cost and benefit analysis);
  • Development and application of solutions and alternatives (through planning and management strategies and processes).

In order to perform these operations within the wide scope of NRM issues, planners and managers should also be able to perform integration at the following levels:

  • scale levels (macro-, meso-, and micro-level):
  • time scales (past, present);
  • disciplinary levels, i.e. natural and social science perspectives;
  • stakeholders and stakeholder levels.

In a context of rapidly changing socioeconomic conditions in Asia, which translate into land use and land cover changes, another ability that we rate highly is the ability of NRM stu-dents of dealing with the challenges of a dynamic environment.

2. Land use and land cover change as an NRM issue
Natural resource management issues today are in a rapid state of flux. Land use and other forms of natural resource use are changing under the influence of demographic growth, technological innovation, policy interventions, environmental degradation, globalization, change of values and lifestyles etc. Resource use changes have been happening before, but there is evidence that the rate of change has accelerated and that consequences of change, which affect both livelihoods and ecosystem processes are more far-reaching today than in the past, especially in Asia. Land cover change is an indicator for the scale and rate of land use changes.

Land use change in Asia, especially in the tropical and subtropical parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, has involved the following modes of transition:

  • subsistence -> commercial/market-oriented
  • extensive -> intensive
  • multicrop -> monocrop
  • low input -> high input
  • low impact -> high impact
  • local control -> external control
  • extraction -> conservation

A well-studied example for this kind of change is the transition from shifting cultivation, the most widespread form of traditional land use in tropical and subtropical Asia, to other forms of land use such as permanent farming with cash crops (e.g. cabbage, soy beans), plantation crops (coffee, oil palm), tree plantations (e.g. teak, pine), or conservation (Schmidt-Vogt, 2000).

In some cases, we can observe a reversal of the trends sketched out above, e.g. a return to multicrop cultivation that started in the 1990s within the context of the promotion and spread of integrated farming that followed upon a crisis of industrialized farming in Thai-land (Tipraqsa 2005).

Other examples are the following transitions:

  • fishing -> aquaculture
  • rainfed farming -> irrigated farming
  • local forest use -> commercial logging
  • subsistence cropping -> cash cropping

The main causes for transitions such as these are: structural changes of the colonial and postcolonial periods, integration into the world economy, lifestyle changes, proliferation of a consumer culture, government interventions in the form of incentives or constraints, demographic growth.

The following questions concerning these changes are important from an NRM perspective:

  • what are the causes and drivers of these changes and transitions?
  • what is the nature and extent of these changes?
  • what are the effects of resource use changes on local livelihoods and environments?
  • if the effects are negative, what are the alternatives and solutions?

3. Geospatial technologies and their role in NRM
Assessment of the availability and condition of the natural resources is the first step while trying to answer the above questions concerning the changes. The assessment process fol-lows a continuum that involves determining the baseline rates or levels of various phenom-ena, establishing the trends in these measurements or conditions, identifying the causes of rates and trends, and determining the type and impact of consequences of rates and trends. An additional element, mitigation, represents the required follow-on actions in terms of policies or directives (International Council for Science, 2002). Four key functions that form the process needed to assess the continuum are:

  • Mapping: collection of thematic and quantitative baseline data (contemporary or his-torical) in geographic format
  • Measuring: more rigorous mapping process by quantifying and documenting the at-tributes of phenomena
  • Modeling: process of describing a system under study through precise and typically mathematical relations of inputs and outputs, and to simulate the present, past or fu-ture behaviour
  • Monitoring: regular assessment of the conditions by also recording the shifts or changes in natural phenomena and human activities

These functions require scientifically valid, quantitatively up-to-date, spatially and tempo-rally explicit natural resource data and information to support informed decision-making, a topic high on the priority list of agenda 21. In many instances, a huge amount of data can be required depending upon the size of the area and the breadth and depth of the issue to be studied.

The advanced technologies, like Remote sensing, Global Positioning Systems (GIS), and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can serve as valuable tools for NRM-related opera-tions, viz. Assessment, Analysis, Development and Applications. Remote sensing systems offer a unique and highly flexible tool to survey and monitor biophysical resources and their characterization, and to track changes in the composition, extent, and distribution of com-munities and ecosystems (Wilkie and Finn, 1996). Remote sensing can provide data of vari-ous spatial resolutions that are required for the studies at all levels (macro, meso, micro). Figure 1 demonstrates an example of land cover change in the part of the Southeast region of Thailand, where almost 90 percent of lowland forests that existed in 1990 are converted to agricultural or other land uses by 2001.

Figure 1. Landsat TM data showing land cover change in the southeast region of Thailand.

GPS provides world-wide positionally accurate coordinates, thus useful to establish geo-graphic location and define the context. A way to acquire recent cost-effective in-situ data, GPS is an important tool for monitoring purpose by acquiring data repetitively about earth features and phenomena. GIS help visualization of geospatial data, and the visualization is a convenient and effective way to communicate complex information, e.g natural resource, and increase our level of understanding about these resources. Besides, GIS also allows data generation, editing, storage, and analysis of spatial data important in planning and decision-making. The technology has been an instrumental breakthrough that permits examining natural resources and environment issues in a geographic context (Foresman, 1998). The key point is that GIS provides a means to investigate problems by allowing to model vari-ous phenomena and examine their relationship, e.g. cause-n-effect relationship, in a place-based context, meaning we can analyze complex, integrated issues from local to global scales.

All of these systems are useful in addressing the assessment, however their relevance can vary depending upon the element of continuum (Table 1). As Remote Sensing offers enor-mous aid to asses rates and trends, GIS is especially functional in examining the causes and consequences. However, an integration of such spatial technologies with other analytical approaches is often desirable to produce better information thereby enhancing our under-standing for better management of natural resources.

Table 1. Relevance of geospatial technologies for assessment continuum.

Geo-spatial technologies Rates Trends Causes Consequences Mitiga-tion
Remote Sensing High High Low Medium Medium
GPS Low Low Medium High Medium
GIS Medium High High High High

Source: Modified from Loveland et al., 2000

Geospatial technologies can contribute often substantially but sometimes in a more supple-mentary fashion to the following interactive operations that should become the stock of trade of NRM students.

3.1 Integrating scale levels
Scale is a particularly challenging issue. All issues and environmental processes have scale-dependent connections (Bailey, 1987) and are different in nature in terms of origin of prob-lems and their consequences. Creating linkages between remote sensing data and socioeco-nomic data obtained on the ground from household surveys has been recognized as one of the major challenges of land use and land cover change studies (Rindfuss et al. 2003). NRM students should obtain the ability to correlate macro-level data or observations obtained through interpretation of maps and remote sensing images with data obtained from analyti-cal work on the meso- or micro-scale (e.g. vegetation surveys, household surveys, institu-tional surveys).

3.2 Integrating time scales
Changes can only be traced through time. This can be easily done on the macro-scale through comparison of maps or remote sensing images from different periods, and on the micro-scale through timeline surveys and compilation of personal narratives or case stories. The educational benefit is to instill a sense of the historical dimension of phenomena and problems, and a feeling for the dynamics of landscapes and livelihoods.

Knowledge of trend of the changes is necessary to project the future, which is important in any resource management exercise including sustainable management of natural resources.

3.3 Integrating natural and social/political science perspectives
Land use and land cover changes are complex phenomena. The causes are lodged in the so-cioeconomic and political sphere; the effects affect the environment as well as the liveli-hood of people. Working in this field requires the capacity for an interdisciplinary approach, which can be trained by encouraging NRM students to combine natural science and so-cial/political science methods in their research studies, e.g. combining methods for analyz-ing and monitoring changes of forest cover and forest structure with survey methods that provide understanding for the socioeconomic and political causes of these changes on vari-ous levels (global, national, local, household).

3.4 Integrating stakeholders
This aspect of land use and land cover change studies applies to any attempt of addressing the effects of land use changes, especially negative effects, and to find solutions or work out strategies. This should be done by way of participative approaches. Participative methods such as participative mapping of land use are increasingly based on maps and spatial data obtained through the application of advanced geospatial technology and the knowledge of local people about their resources.

The good news is that several organizations are sharing remote sensing and spatial data at zero or minimum cost these days and the computing environment is relativity becoming ever affordable. Training of various levels of natural resource professionals is necessary to achieve informed-decision making. While it is desirable that high-level professionals and the policy level are educated about the usefulness of the technologies in decision-making, more and more mid-professionals need to be trained with adequate skill of handling and ap-propriately using the technologies to generate relevant information to support decision mak-ing.

4. Conclusion
Land use and land cover change is a subject or theme, which covers some of the most press-ing issues of NRM in countries of Asia. Concentrating on this theme provides NRM stu-dents with the opportunity to deal with issues that are characterized by complexity and dy-namism and to practice their ability to achieve integration on various levels.

In spite of the impressive advancement of the geospatial technologies of remote sensing, GIS and GPS, and their growing integration in recent years, the opportunity to fill the gaps in natural resources information has not fully realized in the developing countries although substantial efforts are made. This requires the effort in all aspects including training to pro-duce skilled and dedicated manpower to utilize the technologies for sustainable natural re-sources management.

5. Acknowledgements
We wish to acknowledge the Global Land Cover Facility at the University of Maryland ) from where the remote sensing data were downloaded.

6. References

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