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GAIA: A Multi-Media Tool for Natural Resources Management and Environmental Education

GAIA addresses both issues of environmental planning and management as well as information technology. Its primary objective is to build multi-media tools for environmental education and management, in a collaboration of 10 countries from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In collaboration with two European institutions and university partners from seven developing countries, the project will develop a client/server multi-media system for environmental education, using the EARSS system as its starting point. Developed both as a workstations version and an internet server, GAIA provides provide access to numerous case studies and examples of environmental issues, problems, and solutions, embedded in the framework of Agenda 21.

The GAIA Conceptual Framework

Environmental assessment address a broad range of diverse themes or topics. They need to be presented (but also compiled) within a consistent framework that ensures completeness and consistency of the information presented, both for educational as well as operational purposes. Different organizational frameworks have been developed, including:

  • issues such as environmental problems, e.g., land degradation or various forms of pollution;

  • environmental media and categories such as air, water land, fauna and flora;

  • resource sectors such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining, and recreation;

  • environmental processes, such as stress and response as a consequence of human activities;

  • various conceptual or formal models, emphasising interactions and feedbacks;

  • combinations of more than one approach.

As an inclusive combination of issues, topics or themes, resource sectors, media, and selected processes, the thirty plus chapter headings of the UNCED document Agenda 21 offer a widely accepted and well publicized framework and organizing principle. The selection and prioritization of these issues and topics, as well as their definition in terms of measurable indicators and their linkage to the underlying data and their relationships through environmental (but also socio-economic) processes is of central importance for any flexible but comprehensive SoE reporting approach.

As an information concept, issues are loosely defined; they are described in the language of policy rather than science. Issues are not, per se, directly measurable entities, but can rather be understood as a more or less loosely coupled set of indicators and their interpretation in a broader environmental and socio-economic and political context.

Indicators , however, are representing measurable entities, which may be described on either cardinal or ordinal scales. They can directly (although potentially with rather complex and involved methods) be based on observational or derived statistical data.

In summary,
ISSUES are : Policy-level questions and problems of environmental or related socio-economic nature. Issues are controversial, subject to debate, and require interpretation.

Issues can be defined in terms of (usually several) INDICATORS, through explicit or implicit rules depending on context such as time, space, and a cultural and socio-political framework.

INDICATORS are : Measurable properties of the environment, defined in a spatial, temporal, and policy context. Indicators are linked to issues through subjective interpretation and complex evaluation.

Indicators illustrate issues.

Indicators are derived from environmental DATA by simple algorithms such as summation, averaging, interpolation, based on subjective agreements of experts or a well defined regulatory framework of environmental standards and agreements.

DATA are (or are derived from): Direct measurements and observations, possibly involving automatic conversions or interpretation, in hardware, firmware, or routine procedures, usually based on well established theory.

The central concepts in GAIA are issues and their related indicators, illustrated by specific case studies. However, given the dynamic concept of sustainable development, many common indicators are inadequate. To quote Agenda 21, from Chapter 40, section 4:

40.4. Commonly used indicators such as the gross national product (GNP) and measurements of individual resource or pollution flows do not provide adequate indications of sustainability. Methods for assessing interactions between different sectoral environmental, demographic, social and developmental parameters are not sufficiently developed or applied. Indicators of sustainable development need to be developed to provide solid bases for decision-making at all levels and to contribute to a self-regulating sustainability of integrated environment and development systems. Indicators, to be useful, must also have a context and reference point: desirable and undesirable values or ranges, and thresholds such as standards or objectives and targets, where applicable need to be defined, so that a concrete indicator value can be interpreted in this context (provided in GAIA through one or more concrete case studies), including relationships, feedbacks, and constraints of related indicators.


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