Using Free and Open Source GIS to Support Natural Resource Management in the Developing World

GIS Contributor


Rohan Fisher (Research Institute of Environment and Livelihood, Charles Darwin University) discusses the GIS capacity building work he has undertaken over the last 14 years in Eastern Indonesia and the recent launch of a bilingual open source training manual for SAGA GIS to enable decentralized evidence-based natural resource management in the developing world.

Policies aimed at government decentralization have been widely implemented throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia with the goal of increasing efficiency, participation, equity, and accountability. With respect to natural resource management (NRM), decentralization aims to allow more proactive management sensitive to local needs leading to improved environmental sustainability (World Bank, 1998). Reviews of this approach have identified the capacity of local governing organizations as the primary factor limiting effective management. External advisors are commonly used to bridge the gap between limited local capacity and the aspiration for good local governance. Such advisors often have limited local knowledge to contextualize the advice they provide. This lack of local engagement with technical planning processes can result in a limited local understanding of planning outputs leading to poorly informed and inappropriate management recommendations.

In this context building local capacity for evidence-based governance can facilitate the incorporation of local context and potentially lead to more informed planning decisions. The increasing availability of free geospatial data and software is providing new opportunities for enhanced transparency and increased community engagement in environmental management.  Over the last fourteen years a small group at Charles Darwin University, in Northern Australia, has been running capacity building activities included training in the use of Free and Open Source (FOS) GIS software and their application in Eastern Indonesia.

This work has, more recently, specifically focused on building skills in two key areas of raster data analysis; the use of free satellite imagery for natural resource mapping and monitoring and digital elevation data for sophisticated terrain and hydrological analysis. Whilst there are a number of free open source raster analysis packages available, including GRASS, White Box and ILWIS,  SAGA GIS (Conrad, Bechtel et al., 2015) was chosen as the focus of training because it:

  • Provides a one-step process for Landsat data visualization.
  • Has a simple, one-step, process for sophisticated hydrological and terrain modelling
  • Is a compact package that does not require installation and is thus is easy to share

However, a significant barrier to the broader adoption of FOS GIS software is a lack of clear comprehensive training material particularly regarding the use of satellite and terrain analysis tools. In order to support decentralised applications for improved governance of NRM, training material needs to be produced that: 1) utilises free data 2) is contextualised to local NRM issues, 3) results in data that meet local needs and central government reporting requirements and 4) is produced in appropriate languages.

The potential benefits of investing in training material supporting local government agencies to perform their own mapping and monitoring include:

  1. Build legitimacy in the spatial analysis through participation
  2. Support equity, competence and accountability through building skills
  3. Contribute to a common global resource pool of training material
  4. Legitimise the use of FOS GIS tools

Support for software and training material development and the wider adoption of these tools requires advocacy from funding organisations involved in natural resource management projects. Considering these potential benefits it could be argued that all rural development and NRM programs creating new spatial data in less developed countries should include support for FOS GIS applications and collaborative mapping and monitoring.

To this end we have recently released a number of bilingual, Indonesian/English, training materials including the training manual:

Satellite Image Analysis and Terrain Modelling: A practical manual for natural resource management, disaster risk and development planning using free geospatial data and software.[*]

This training manual is supported by a website that provides all the data used in the training examples, additional tutorials and screen shot videos to facilitate ongoing independent learning.  A key concept in the training manual and online material is to provide practical application examples combining the use of spectral satellite data with elevation datasets to explore local and catchment-wide land management issues.

SAGA GIS training website and materials

Cover of the SAGA GIS manual showing a grayed out shaded relief.

The training website and manuals are here:

[*]Fisher, R., Hobgen, S., Mandaya, I., Kaho, N.R. and Zulkarnain (2017): Satellite Image Analysis and Terrain Modelling – A practical manual for natural resource management, disaster risk and development planning using free geospatial data and software.


Conrad, O., Bechtel, B., Bock, M., Dietrich, H., Fischer, E., Gerlitz, L., … & Böhner, J. (2015). System for automated geoscientific analyses (SAGA) v. 2.1. 4Geoscientific Model Development8(7), 1991-2007.

Litvack, J. I., Ahmad, J., & Bird, R. M. (1998). Rethinking decentralization in developing countries. World Bank Publications.

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