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Geomorphology 39 2001.


Remote sensing and GIS-based regional geomorphological

mappinga tool for land use planning in developing countries
G. Bocco a,) , M. Mendoza a , A. Velazquez

Instituto de Ecologa,
de Mexico,
AP 27-3, 58089 Xangari, Michoacan,
Uniersidad Nacional Autonoma

Instituto de Geografa,
de Mexico,
Uniersidad Nacional Autonoma

Received 9 September 1999; received in revised form 11 December 2000; accepted 20 December 2000

Land use planning and necessary supporting data are crucial to developing countries that are usually under severe
environmental and demographic strains. Approaches and methods to map the variability of natural resources are important
tools to properly guide spatial planning. In this paper, we describe a method to quickly map terrain at reconnaissance
1:250,000. and semi-detailed 1:50,000. levels. This method can be utilized as a basis for further land evaluation and land
use planning in large territories. The approach was tested in the state of Michoacan, central-western Mexico, currently
undergoing rapid deforestation and subsequent land degradation.
Results at the reconnaissance level describe the geographic distribution of major landforms and dominant land cover, and
provide a synoptic inventory of natural resources. Results at the semi-detailed level indicate how to nest individual
landforms to major units and how they can be used to run procedures for land evaluation. If combined with appropriate
socioeconomic data, governmental guidelines for land use planning can be formulated on the basis of reconnaissance and
semi-detailed terrain analysis. q 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Geomorphological mapping; Land use planning; Remote sensing; GIS; Mexico

1. Introduction
Land use planning results from a reasonable compromise between the environmental potential measured in terms of the availability of natural resources. and the social demand measured in terms
of the requirements of goods and services by specific
human communities.. Land use planning and necessary supporting data are crucial to developing coun)
Corresponding author. Tel.: q52-43-244537; fax: q52-43244537.
E-mail address: G. Bocco..

tries that are usually under severe environmental and

demographic strains see, e.g. Food and Agriculture
Organization, 1995.. Third World countries have
difficulty in meeting the high costs of controlling
natural hazards through major engineering works and
rational land use planning Guzzetti et al., 1999..
In Mexico, for instance, a substantial amount of
the population lives in poverty conditions, especially
in rural communities. This has important environmental implications because 80% of the remaining
Mexican forested areas temperate and tropical. are
managed by indigenous people in rural communities
Thoms and Betters, 1998.. Usually, however, data

0169-555Xr01r$ - see front matter q 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 1 6 9 - 5 5 5 X 0 1 . 0 0 0 2 7 - 7


G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219

on natural resources are either incomplete or non-updated Brodnig and Mayer, 2000.. In Mexico and in
many Latin American countries, basic geographic
data topographic and thematic. exist at different
scales see, e.g. Lugo and Cordova,
1996.. Monitor
ing and analysis of natural resources at coarse scales,
however, is often lacking.
Feasible methods to map variability of natural
resources and natural hazards, and to assess land
capabilities see Christian, 1957; Mabbut and Stewart, 1963; Wright, 1972; Cooke and Doornkamp,
1974; Steiner et al., 1994; Panizza, 1996; Rivas et
al., 1997; Pasuto and Soldati, 1999. are important
tools to properly guide spatial planning and may be
very useful in developing countries.
Geomorphological mapping still holds as a valuable research tool see the case of fluvial geomorphology, for instance, in Castiglioni et al., 1999.. For
applied purposes, however, a rather pragmatic approach is recommendable, especially when surveys
encompass large areas and results must be available
quickly. In this paper, we describe a method to
quickly map terrain in relatively large territories
thousands of square kilometers. and show how it
can be used as a basis for further land evaluation and
land use planning in the event that relevant resource
data are either scarce, non-updated, or unavailable.
This is the case in many developing countries, most
located in inter-tropical regions under fragile environmental conditions.

2. The study area

We tested the approach in the state of Michoacan,
Mexico Fig. 1. ca. 60,000 km2 and 4 million
inhabitants.. The region has undergone severe land
use change: deforestation rates are the highest in the
country, per capita income is half the national average, and indigenous groups living in marginal conditions impact resource use. Climates in the region
vary from tropical dry at the coast, to temperate and
semiarid inland, depending on elevation. Altitudes
range from sea level to ca. 3900 m asl. Major
physiographic units include Quaternary Volcanic
Temperate Sierras, Geologically Complex Temperate
and Tropical Sierras, Fluvio-Tectonic Tropical De-

Fig. 1. Location map of study area.

pressions, and Temperate Highlands Commission

for Environmental Cooperation, 1997..

3. The approach: landform and landscape classification

This approach uses landform mapping, at different resolutions, as the major entry to landscape
classification. In this sense, we partially followed the
land system and terrain analysis mapping schemes
developed in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in
Europe and Australia for a review, see Verstappen,
1983; van Zuidam and van Zuidam, 1985.. Inventories of natural resources were completed relatively
quickly using those frameworks.
Major technological advances, primarily during
the last two decades, involve the following.
i. The use of digital remote sensing and geographic information systems GIS. techniques in resource surveying e.g. Lopez-Blanco
and Villers,

1995; Pickup and Chewings, 1996; Garca-Melendez

et al., 1998; Novak and Soulakellis, 2000.. An opportunity now exists to gain fresh insights into biophysical systems through the spatial, temporal, spectral, and radiometric resolutions of remote sensing

G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219

systems and through the analytical and data integration capability of GIS Walsh et al., 1998..
ii. Developments in digital elevation modeling at
different resolutions and operational in personal
computers Daymond et al., 1995; Giles and Franklin,
1998.. This technique allows full data extraction
from topographic maps, and the automation of slope
gradient and aspect calculations and display, including the pseudo three-dimensional views.
iii. The development of automated frameworks
for land evaluation e.g. Rossiter, 1990; Food and
Agriculture Organization, 1995.. Land capability assessments were eased by automating analyses of soil
properties and the relationship between land form
and land quality.
All the above-mentioned advances were considered in this research. In addition, geomorphologic
mapping for the exercise followed a slightly different
approach. Landforms are discrete units that can readily be defined and verified at different scales by
proven techniques. Vegetation and soils tend to vary
predictably within a landform unit and are affected
by altitude and slope aspect and gradient. Relationships between landforms and soil, vegetation and
land use the latter embodied here as land cover. can
be described using different analytical techniques
such as map overlaying. in automated databases of
a GIS. In other words, landforms are acceptable
integrated classifiers of the landscape, and can be
used to divide it into discrete segments.
Another relevant issue in this approach is the use
of a hierarchic classification of landforms, from
which nested legends can be derived at different
scales Zinck, 1988.. We formulated a legend and
mapped the entire state at 1:250,000 reconnaissance
level. and zoomed in on one area at 1:50,000 to
show how nesting could be accomplished at a
semi-detailed level.. For each scale, we focused on
different geomorphic and landscape criteria. We
aimed at developing mapping schemes that could, in
the future, be used by land use planners and conservationists.
Throughout the entire analysis, we extensively
used i. interpretation of topographic maps and digital terrain models for relief; ii. interpretation of
lithologic maps for bedrock, iii. interpretation of
aerial photographs and Landsat imagery for both
landforms and land cover, iv. selective field verifi-


cation, and vi. automated data management and

analysis in a GIS. We applied map-overlaying techniques coupled to statistical analyses to describe the
quantitative relationships between landscape components: landforms, soils and vegetation.
For this exercise, we used the Integrated Land and
Watershed Management Information System ILWIS,
2000., a powerful, albeit user-friendly PC-based GIS
with vector including aerial photograph rectification., raster and relational capabilities, and modeling
tools such as terrain modeling, geostatistics, map
calculation and Boolean algebra. For the cartographic output, we used Arc View version 3.2..

4. Method and materials

The region that was mapped Fig. 1. is cartographically represented in five 1:250,000 base maps,
each constituted by 24 1:50,000 maps. All maps
were produced and edited by INEGI, the Mexican
national mapping agency. For the regional analysis,
we interpreted the topographic expression of relief
and lithology, respectively, on the topographic and
rock type maps at 1:50,000 for the entire state and
expressed results on 1:250,000 topographic maps. At
this scale, we basically used morphometry relief
amplitude and slope gradient, derived from digital
terrain models. and morpholithology as discriminating criteria. We specifically excluded morphogenesis
at this coarse approximation; rather, we emphasized
a more physiognomic approach that eased mapping,
despite using quantitative criteria. The idea behind
this could be described as Ayou map what you seeB;
we thought that the scheme could be comprehensive
and useful to other specialists involved in planning.
A goal was to be clear and descriptive without losing
geomorphic quality.

Table 1
Major landforms with prominent relief expression
Unit name

Relief amplitude



Very low hills

Low hills
High hills

- 250

) 308


G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219


Table 2
Major landforms without prominent relief expression
Unit name

Relief amplitude





- 38
- 38


The entire area was divided into two broad groups

of major landforms, with and without important relief expression. For the first group, we differentiated
four geomorphic regions: very low hills, low hills,
high hills, and sierras. The second group was formed
by four other regions: valleys, plains, highplains, and
piedmonts. The thresholds for discriminating criteria
relief amplitude and slope steepness. are given in
Tables 1 and 2, respectively, for both groups of
landforms; in this way, the method can be replicated
in similar environmental conditions.
Dominant vegetation and land use land cover.
was visually interpreted from improved color compositions of Landsat images, geometrically correct
and printed at 1:250,000 scale by INEGI. Mapping

categories were tropical dry forest, temperate forest,

shrubsgrasslands, crops, and human-induced features. Spectral criteria depicted on the imagery were
coupled to ancillary data layers: altitude and slope
characteristics from the DEM, climate, rock type and
relief. The resulting information was manually digitized to GIS databases where cartographic overlaying
operations provided quantitative relationships between landforms and land cover. Field verification
consisted of transects following roads that intersected major environmental units. At this scale, we
basically verified land cover and ambiguous geomorphic contacts.
For the semi-detailed analysis, we focused on a
volcanic area near Morelia, the capital city of Michoacan. We interpreted 1:50,000 and 1:80,000
panchromatic black-and-white, up-to-date aerial photography for landform and land cover delineation
van Zuidam and van Zuidam, 1985.. Within each
regional unit, landforms were discriminated primarily according to morphogenesis. Because of scale
constraints of the regional mapping, same landform
units may be located within more than one regional
unit Table 3.. Vegetation delineation differentiated
some of the categories defined above.

Table 3
Geomorphic regions and landforms, characterized by lithology and dominant soil and land cover
Geomorphic region


A. Plains

1. Alluvial plain with vertisols and crops

2. Mesa on basic lava with feozems and crops
1. Alluvial plain with vertisols and crops
3. Scoria cones with andisols, crops, and shrubs
4. Concave upper footslopes on basic volcanic rocks with a pyroclastic cover,
luvisols, crops, and grasslands
5. Convex upper footslopes on basic volcanic rocks without a pyroclastic cover,
luvisols, grasslands, and oak forest
6. Lower footslopes on volcanic colluvium with clayey soils and crops
7. Basaltic lava flows with leptosols and andisols, shrubs, and crops
1. Alluvial plain with vertisols and crops
2. Mesa on basic lava with feozems and crops
7. Basaltic lava flows with litosols and andisols, shrubs, and crops
8. Gentle slopes on basic volcanic rocks, with andisols, crops and shrubs
9. Undifferentiated footslopes, on basic rocks with acrisols and crops
9. Undifferentiated footslopes on basic rocks with acrisols and crops
10. Steep slopes on basic rocks with andisols, and pines, oaks, and mixed forests
8. Gentle slopes on basic volcanic rocks with andisols, crops, and shrubs
10. Steep slopes on basic rocks with andisols, and pines, oaks, and mixed forests
11. Summit surface on basic volcanic rocks, with andisols and crops

B. Piedmonts

C. Very low hills

D. Low hills
E. High hills

Notice that the same landform may be recognized in more than one region.

G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219

Fig. 2. Major geomorphic regions.


G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219

Fig. 3. Semi-detailed analysis of landforms, dominant soils and land cover. See description of mapping in Table 3.

G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219

Interpretations were manually digitized directly

from photographs and geometrically corrected using
the monorestitution capability of the GIS McCullough and Moore, 1995.. This method allows the
rectification of aerial photographs through ground
control points and digital elevation data. Soil information was digitized from INEGI maps at 1:50,000.
We verified landforms and cover interpretations
in the field along a transect from plain to high hills.
The accuracy of the database was inspected following Bocco and Riemann 1997.. This method tests
the efficiency during labeling of digitized polygons
and allows for error correction.

5. Results and discussion

The results of the mapping are presented in a
generalized manner Figs. 2 and 3.. Quantitative data
are summarized in Table 4. Results at the reconnaissance level quantitatively describe the geographic
distribution of major landforms and dominant land
cover. This shows a synoptic inventory of forest
resources that can guide planning efforts at the state
level. In the case of Michoacan, comparison of land
cover to landforms indicates that severe deforestation
is occurring in steep terrain hills and sierras. that
should be devoted to forest because of its unsuitability for other uses Bocco et al., 1998.. Areas of
inappropriate or potentially conflictive land use are
thus easily detected at this coarse scale and permit
Table 4
Quantitative distribution of major landforms and dominant cover

of total area

Very low hills
Low hills
High hills




Dominant cover
crops, dry forest
dry and temperate
crops, dry forest
dry forest, crops
dry and temperate
forests, grassshrubs
dry and temperate
forests, grassshrubs

The difference to 100% is occupied by water and man-made

features. Dominant cover represents more than 60% of unit areas.


the narrowing-down of future research and policy

At the semi-detailed level, the results of nesting
individual landforms were discriminated using morphogenetic criteria grouped into major units Table
3.. The approach at 1:50,000 can be used to run land
evaluation procedures Rossiter, 1990; Steiner et al.,
1994. whose results can be further combined with
appropriate socioeconomic data to formulate guidelines for land use planning. In Mexico, 1:50,000 is a
suitable scale for environmental planning of most
This mapping effort is currently used by the
Ministry of the Environment to assess the change of
land cover at a regional scale Bocco et al., 1998..
The statistics obtained indicate severe trends of deforestation in temperate 1% annual rate. and dry
forests 2% annual rate., as well as a strong increase
of the areas under shrubs and grasses following
cattle grazing in scarcely populated areas. In turn,
deforested areas for cattle are abandoned and other
non-productive uses may prevail. In many remote
areas, illegal crops such as cannabis. are found.
Because land cover data can be easily updated in the
automated GIS created, sequential analysis of the
change in cover is feasible. Landforms remain, however, as the basic analytical spatial unit.
The entire survey took 12 personrmonths. Because the investigation was carried out in an academic institution, costs of human resources were
minimized, and hands-on training of assistants was
achieved. The total cost, including maps, images,
scholarships and fieldwork, was around US$0.50rkm2 .
The method avoids the use of specialized terminology as much as possible without becoming vague.
This insures the use of data by non-geomorphologists, such as social scientists, involved in planning.
In Mexico, regional ecological mapping, based on
geomorphology, is used by the National Institute of
Ecology Ministry of the Environment. for land use
planning at the national and local scales. In Michoacan, the regional geomorphologic mapping described
in this paper is the basis for further mapping and
planning efforts by the local planning authority in
the Cuitzeo basin, the second largest lake in Mexico.
This basin is severely degraded; off-site effects of
soil erosion are dramatic on the water body.


G. Bocco et al.r Geomorphology 39 (2001) 211219

6. Conclusions
In the 21st century, scientists will be judged on
how well they generate new knowledge, and also for
how well they help solve local and global problems.
Scientists in every nation must take action to ensure
that policy makers and the public make their decisions based on the best available information Alberts, 2000..
The approach and results discussed in this paper
are in line with the idea of geomorphologists influencing societal decision-making Gupta and Ahmad,
1999.. This also holds for other scientific communities that are concerned with the outreach of scientific
results at large Ludwig et al., 1993.. Especially in
Third World countries searching for sustainable development strategies, the gap between science and
policy can be bridged through multidisciplinary efforts.
Two possible linked paths are i. matching the
knowledge base to user needs and transforming input
to decision making into publishable research Snow,
1998.; and ii. strengthening capabilities in rural
communities for resource management through participatory research approaches Gobin et al., 2000..
We thank Lorenzo Vazquez,
Alan Woods and

Glenn Griffith for critically reading an early version

of the paper. Mauro Soldatti and Mario Panizza
kindly reviewed the manuscript. Two anonymous
referees critically contributed to improving the final
version of this paper. Research on which the article
is based was funded by CONACYT SIMORELOS
Programme 1996: Land Use Change in Michoacan..
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