Conservationist Leonidas Nzigiyimpa says “you can’t manage what you don’t know”.
He adds: “To improve the forest situation, we need to use new technologies.”
Mr. Nzigiyimpa is the chief guardian of five protected forest areas in the small Central African country, 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 areas. “It’s pure nature,” he says.
In carrying out its work, Nzigiyimpa needs to consider a number of factors, from monitoring the impact of human actions and economies, to monitoring biodiversity and the impact of climate change, as well as staff numbers and budgets.
To help him track and log all of this, he now uses the latest version of a 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 Program). This is supported by both the European Union and the Organization of 79 member states of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
“So, we use this type of tool to train site managers to use it to collect good data and to analyze this data in order to make good decisions,” says Nzigiyimpa.
Monitoring 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 fight it.
According to the United Nations, approximately 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forest in the world are lost every year.
This deforestation accounts for 20% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which adds that “by reducing forest loss, we can reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.”
To try to restore forests and other natural habitats around the world, the United Nations launched the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration last year. This has seen countries, companies and other organizations pledge actions to prevent, stop and reverse the degradation of ecosystems around the world.
“But just to say we will restore is not enough,” says Yelena Finegold, forestry officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. “There is a need for responsible planning of how ecosystem restoration will take place, followed by field actions enabled by investment in restoration and monitoring systems in place to track ecosystem restoration.”
This increased focus on forest management has resulted in new digital tools to better collect, sort and use data.
One of these is the FAO Framework for Ecosystem Monitoring (Ferm) website. The site was launched last year and uses satellite imagery to highlight changes in forests around the world. The maps and data are accessible to any Internet user, be it a scientist, a government official, a company or a member of the public.
A key data source for Ferm is the US space agency NASA and its Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation system. Known as Gedi for short, this acronym is pronounced as the Jedi word from the Star Wars movies. And continuing the theme of that film series, its slogan is “may the forest be with you”.
The technology itself is certainly very science fiction turned into real life. “We shoot laser beams at trees from the International Space Station,” says Laura Duncanson, who helps lead the Gedi project from the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences.
“We use reflected energy to map forests in 3D, including their height, canopy density and carbon content,” adds Dr. Duncanson, one of the leading remote sensing experts. “This is an exciting new technology because for decades we have been able to observe deforestation from space, but now with Gedi we can assign the carbon emissions associated with forest loss. [for greater accuracy]. “
Maps and data are also supplied to Ferm by the Norwegian company Planet Labs, which operates more than 200 satellites equipped with cameras. They take about 350 million photos of the earth’s surface on a daily basis, each covering an area of one sq km.
Planet Labs can also be hired directly by governments and companies around the world. In addition to monitoring forests, its cameras can be used to monitor everything from drought to agriculture, energy and infrastructure projects, and monitoring key infrastructure, such as ports.
Remi D’Annunzio, a forestry colleague at FAO, says that all the images available from space “have changed enormously the way we monitor forests, because it has produced extremely repeatable observations and extremely frequent re-visits of the places”.
He adds: “Basically, now, with all these publicly available satellites put together, we can get a full snapshot of Earth every four or five days.”
Examples of how all of this near-real-time monitoring via Ferm is now being used are pilot schemes in Vietnam and Laos that are trying to tackle illegal logging. Rangers and community workers on the ground get alerts on their cell phones when new deforestation is detected.
“Now, what we’re really trying to do is not just figure out the volume of forests that are being lost, but where they are losing specifically in this or that, so that we can track the loss and even prevent it almost in reality. get worse, “says FAO forestry officer Akiko Inoguchi.