Conservationist Leonidas Nzigiyimpa says: “You can’t manage what you don’t know”.
He adds: “In order to improve the situation of the forests, we have to use new technologies.”
Mr Nzigiyimpa is the chief warden of five protected forest areas in the small Central African country of Burundi.
For the past two decades, he and his team have worked with local communities to protect and manage the forest. His face lights up as he describes the fresh smell and beauty of the area. “It’s pure nature,” he says.
In his work, Mr. Nzigiyimpa must consider a number of factors, from monitoring the impacts of human activity and the economy, to tracking biodiversity and the impacts of climate change, to staff numbers and budgets.
To track and record all of this, he now uses the latest version of free software called the Integrated Management Effectiveness Tool.
The tool was developed specifically for such environmental work by a project called Biopama (Biodiversity and Protected Areas Management Programme). This is supported by both the European Union and the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States with 79 member states.
“So we use this kind of tool to train the site managers to use it to collect good data and analyze that data to make good decisions,” says Mr. Nzigiyimpa.
Tracking and protecting the world’s forests is not only important to the local communities and economies most directly affected. Deforestation contributes to climate change, so restoring forests could help combat it.
According to the United Nations, approximately 10 million hectares of the world’s forests are lost every year.
This deforestation accounts for 20% of all the world’s carbon emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which adds that “reducing forest loss can reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.”
To try to restore forests and other natural habitats around the world, the United Nations launched the UN Decade for Restoring Ecosystems last year. This has led to countries, companies and other organizations pledging actions to prevent, halt and reverse the destruction of ecosystems worldwide.
“But just saying we will restore is not enough,” says Yelena Finegold, forest officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “There is a need for responsible planning of how this ecosystem restoration is to occur, followed by on-site actions enabled by investments in restoration and monitoring systems in place to track this ecosystem restoration.”
This increased focus on forest management has led to new digital tools to better collect, sort and use data.
One of them is FAO’s own website Framework for Ecosystem Monitoring (Ferm). Launched last year, the website uses satellite imagery to highlight changes in forests around the world. The maps and data are accessible to any internet user, be they scientists, government officials, businesses or members of the public.
An important data source for Ferm is the US space agency Nasa and its Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation System. This acronym, called Gedi for short, is pronounced like the word Jedi from the Star Wars films. And to continue the theme of this film series, the slogan is “May the forest be with you”.
The technology itself has certainly become very sci-fi real life. “We’re shooting laser beams at trees from the International Space Station,” says Laura Duncanson, who helps lead the Gedi project from the University of Marylands’ Department of Geographical Sciences.
“We use the reflected energy to map forests in 3D, including their elevation, canopy density and carbon content,” adds Dr. Duncanson who is a leading remote sensing expert. “This is exciting new technology because for decades we’ve been able to observe deforestation from space, but now with Gedi we can map the carbon emissions associated with forest loss.” [for greater accuracy].”
Maps and data are also provided to Ferm by the Norwegian company Planet Labs, which operates more than 200 satellites equipped with cameras. These take about 350 million photos of the earth’s surface every day, each covering an area of one square kilometer.
Planet Labs can also be commissioned directly by governments and corporations around the world. In addition to monitoring forests, its cameras can be used to monitor droughts, agriculture, energy and infrastructure projects, and to monitor important infrastructure such as ports.
Remi D’Annunzio, an FAO forest official, says that all of the available imagery from space “has changed tremendously the way we monitor forests because they have resulted in extremely repeatable observations and extremely frequent site revisits.” .
He adds: “Basically, with all these publicly available satellites, we can now take a full snapshot of Earth every four to five days.”
Examples of how all this near real-time surveillance over Ferm is now being used are pilot projects in Vietnam and Laos trying to combat illegal logging. On-site rangers and community workers receive alerts on their cell phones when new deforestation is discovered.
“What we’re really trying to do now is understand not just how much forest is being lost, but also where specifically it’s being lost in this or that district so we can monitor the loss and even almost prevent it in reality.” Time to get worse,” says FAO forest official Akiko Inoguchi.