Conservation GIS in the Tropics

Master basic and advanced geographic information system (GIS) tools in a flexible but intensive hybrid course comprised of online learning and a two-week exploration of the tropical forests of Ecuador, South America.  Learn to collect field data with professional GPS units, visualize and analyze those data in cutting-edge GIS software, and apply advanced mapping and assessment tools to real world conservation projects underway in the tropics.  Wake up to monkeys howling, attend class while toucans and parrots fly past, and go to sleep under the tall canopy of a tropical forest!


GIS skills are in high demand in a wide variety of fields — particularly in ecology, environmental studies, and conservation — and rapidly are becoming pre-requisites for many career paths.  This course introduces the basics of GIS and GPS, then provides hands-on training in implementing advanced projects in QGIS, a leading software platform.  The training will largely take place in an intensive, supervised, online learning format.  Once the web-learning is completed, the program heads to South America where we will spend two weeks in tropical forests, rural landscapes, and occasionally the Pacific Ocean!  Once in Ecuador students will have a unique opportunity to apply their GIS skills to real-world conservation challenges in a remote site on the western coast, the Lalo Loor Dry Forest Reserve (just a few miles from latitude 0° 0′ 0″ — the equator!)

Course Overview

The course structure follows a hybrid model, with two weeks of online content followed by two weeks of tropical fieldwork.  The online content will involve several hours per day of recorded lecture videos, homework assignments to be implemented in Quantum GIS, practical assignments to find and access public data, discussions of homework outcomes, and other interactive features.  The topics covered will allow newcomers to GIS to get a strong foundation in fundamental principals and use of mapping and analysis tools, while also permitting those students already familiar with GIS to study new applications of these tools to conservation, and to learn a powerful and widely used open-source software platform, QGIS.

After two weeks of online content, the program travels to Quito, Ecuador, where we inaugurate our two-week stay in this exciting and hyper diverse — both biologically and culturally — tropical country.  After a couple days exploring the highlands and mastering GPS data collection in the shadows of snowcapped Andean peaks, we descend to the Pacific coast where we will stay at the Lalo Loor reserve, an ongoing conservation project of the Ceiba Foundation.  At the reserve, you will participate in face-to-face lectures, lab activities, and discussions; however, the majority of class time will be spent in the field.  In all sites, you will practice GIS and GPS techniques, collect data for visualization in QGIS, participate in a variety of advanced training activities, and contribute meaningfully to Ceiba’s active research and conservation programs

Hands-on practice, and research projects, will take place mostly within the reserve’s forest, which is rich in botanical diversity, bird life, insects and amphibians and reptiles, and is densely populated with Mantled Howler Monkeys (Alouatta palliata) … they might even be the subjects for your final project!  Additional fieldwork will be conducted in the surrounding countryside, where the Ceiba Foundation is collaborating with many land owners to achieve regional conservation goals.

The field course concludes with a group research project that you and your fellow students will design and implement.  This project will may focus on questions of ecology, distribution of species, assessment of risks, or you may choose to work with Ceiba or one of our partners to fulfill a pressing conservation GIS need of theirs, such as mapping new reserves, creating trail maps to ecotourism destinations, or advanced analyses like watershed delineation, hotspot mapping, and more.

Along the way, course participants will learn about tropical ecology, sustainable land management, and have ample opportunity to interact with local community members, with whom Ceiba has a long and productive relationship.  If you speak Spanish, conversations with staff and locals will be a great way to practice!  If you don’t speak Spanish, don’t worry!  All lectures will be given in English, and you can easily get by without learning more than “Hola” and “Gracias”. The deadline for the Summer 2019 course is Friday, March 1st.  Apply now! (UW-Madison)


All Ceiba courses are fully accredited by the University of Wisconsin.  Participants in the Conservation GIS program will earn 4 credits, appearing on your transcript as Geography 475.  For more information please contact Ceiba, or visit the UW Madison course page.