Ecologist Leonidas Nzigiba says “you can’t manage what you don’t know”.
He adds: “To improve the state of forests, we need to use new technology.”
Mr Nzigiyimpa is the warden of five protected forest areas in the small central African country of Burundi.
For the past two decades, he and his team have been working with local communities to protect and manage the forest. His face lights up when he describes the fresh smell and beauty of the areas. “It’s pure nature,” he says.
In carrying out his work, Mr Nzigiyimpa has to consider a range of factors, from monitoring the impact of human actions and economies, to monitoring biodiversity and the effects of climate change, as well as the number of staff and budgets.
To help him track and record 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 79-member Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.
“So we use this kind of tool to train site managers to use it to collect good data and to analyze that data in order to make good decisions,” says Mr Nzigiyimpa.
Monitoring and protecting the world’s forests is not only important to the local communities and economies directly affected. Deforestation contributes to climate change, so forest restoration could help combat it.
About 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of the world’s forests are lost each year, according to the United Nations.
This deforestation accounts for 20% of all the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which adds that “by reducing forest loss, we can reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change”.
To try to restore forests and other natural habitats around the world, the United Nations last year launched the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. This has seen countries, companies and other organizations pledge action to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation worldwide.
“But just saying we’re going to restore is not enough,” says Yelena Finegold, a forest officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “There is a need for responsible planning of how this ecosystem restoration will take place, followed by on-the-ground actions enabled by investments in restoration and monitoring systems to monitor this ecosystem restoration.”
This increased focus on forest management has led to the creation of new digital tools to collect, classify and better use data.
One of these is FAO’s own 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, whether a scientist, government official, business or member of the public.
A key data source for Ferm is the US space agency Nasa and the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Research System. Known as Gedi for short, this acronym is pronounced like the word Jedi from the Star Wars movies. And continuing the theme of this film series, its motto is “the forest is with you”.
The technology itself is definitely very science fiction made into 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 Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences.
“We use the use of reflected energy to map forests in 3D, including their height, canopy density and carbon content,” adds Dr Duncanson, who is a leading expert in remote sensing. “This is an exciting new technology because for decades we could observe deforestation from space, but now with Gedi we can define 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 has more than 200 camera-equipped satellites. These take about 350 million pictures of the Earth’s surface on a daily basis, each covering an area of one square kilometer.
Planet Labs can also be hired directly by governments and businesses around the world. In addition to monitoring forests, its cameras can be used to monitor everything from droughts to agriculture, energy and infrastructure projects, as well as monitoring key infrastructure such as ports.
Remi D’Annunzio, a fellow FAO forestry officer, says all the available space imagery “has changed tremendously the way we monitor forests, because it has created extremely repeatable observations and extremely frequent site visits.”
He adds: “Basically, now, with all these publicly available satellites combined, we can get a complete snapshot of the Earth every four to five days.”
Examples of how all this near-real-time monitoring through Ferm is now being used are pilot programs in Vietnam and Laos that are trying to tackle illegal logging. Rangers and community workers on the ground are sent alerts on their mobile phones when new deforestation is detected.
“Now, what we’re really trying to do is not just understand the amount of forest that’s being lost, but where specifically it’s being lost in this or that region, so that we can track the losses and even almost actually prevent them. time, from getting worse,” says FAO forestry officer Akiko Inoguchi.