First, a clarification about where and with whom I work because of some questions I’ve gotten. I’m not working with other Americans, although I do have frequent contact with the Peace Corps office and with volunteers in other locations. As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re each assigned to a “host country agency” and in my case it’s the federal Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) – more or less like the US Dept of the Interior, I believe. So, I work in a Mexican government office and the situation is a lot like being an on-site consultant where Peace Corps is the consulting group and SEMARNAT is the client. I have supervisors and coworkers in both organizations, but my day-to-day work is with mis compadres in SEMARNAT’s Puebla state office.
I’ve had a change of work priorities as the end of my service nears. Many months back I had shown my supervisor and coworkers some results of forest change analysis using satellite imagery. I visually overlaid a slew of data showing particularly the areas where forestry permits had been issued over the past 10 years to help interpret some places with apparent forest loss. My presentation showed some strengths and weaknesses of the analysis process, but what made a much bigger impression on them was seeing the collection of forestry management programs on a map. It was a mess! There were properties on top of properties inside of other properties…. The geographic data for those forestry programs was submitted by licensed contractors most of whom collected/approximated the coordinates in ways that were imprecise at best. And the vast majority of that data was accepted by the office before it was using any mapping software (aka GIS) to verify that the data was accurate or at least sensible … like located in the right municipality or even state. As a result, this collection of unverified geographic data was full of undiscovered errors. It had sat on the shelves for years being completely unused before my predecessor, Christian, laboriously pulled it all from paper and put it into ArcGIS which allowed them to finally see it and use it.
The red in both images are "problems" - overlapping forest management data.
My coworkers urgently wanted to know what data was right and what was wrong. You can imagine how alarming it would be to discover that some forestry programs are truly overlapped – 2 communities or land owners laying claim to the same forest and BOTH having permits from our office authorizing them to harvest it. There are messy legal implications and there could even be violent conflict (not unheard of in Mexico).
Now that my time here is limited, my supervisor is keen on having me correct as many of these errors as possible in their budding GIS before I leave. So, that has become my main focus over the past month and will be for at least the next couple weeks. I fixed some errors on my own by reviewing the original documents and finding mistakes made by the contractors – a typo usually makes a coordinate muy muy incorrecto. But the majority of cases require going back to the contractors for the correct data. We met 3 weeks ago with a group of roughly 20 of the contractors to show them how bad the situation is. I generated reports of the property conflicts for them and am now waiting on them to send corrections so I can incorporate them in the GIS. Some corrections have come in already but we’ll need a LOT more before we can call this a success.
This task isn’t glamorous nor highly technical. I could easily train someone else here to do it if there were someone available … and in fact, we’ll need to do that soon one way or another. But, it’s nice doing a project that has some immediate importance for my office. My group really needs this and they will immediately benefit from it.
My forest change detection project (satellite image analysis) is idle right now due to this new activity but also because of a big limitation: the imagery coverage available to our office through Landsat (L5 doesn’t have recent coverage here and gap-filled L7 SLC-off scenes aren’t usable) and SPOT don’t allow for a complete and ongoing study of Puebla’s forest. It’s also pretty clear that there won’t be anyone available in my office to learn and repeat the process in the future, either. Bummer.
In any case, I’m getting to know the lay of the land better via my maps of the state and I get to practice pronouncing local place names from Náhuatl. (That’s Mexico’s most widely spoken pre-Hispanic language and which gave the world delicious words like “guacamole”, “jalapeño” “tomato”, “chocolate”, “mesquite” and … well, “México”.) Try these out loud: Ocoyohualulco, Cuautelolulco, Mexcalcuautla, Xocotehuaxtla, Talpitzahuayan, Eloxochitlán, y Tepoxcuautla.