Giles Crosse looks at UN efforts to remove the barriers that have prevented the plethora of remote sensing tools now available to bring about change on the ground

The launch of World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch platform in 2014 was revolutionary in that it made global spatial forest monitoring data freely available online, along with easily understood maps, charts and graphs.

Yet data collected by the platform has also highlighted the failure of these new eyes in the skies to turn the tide on accelerating deforestation.

This year Global Forest Watch revealed that tree cover shrank by another 29.4 million hectares in 2017, close to the record 29.7m ha lost in 2016.

If we want to connect things to change systems one player that needs to participate is the governments

The data underlined findings by researchers at World Resources Institute (WRI) and Wageningen University, who said there is a widening gap between the plethora of remote sensing tools available and what is actually being developed, maintained and applied by tropical countries on the ground.

One big barrier is that corruption and bribery are rife across the developing world. According to local sustainability NGOs and reporters, Cambodia is one government that has been known to sanction burning of national park forests, clearing space for Chinese investors while forcibly resettling locals.

“If we want to connect things to change systems one player that needs to participate is the governments. The governments need to be part of a change towards transparency and traceability,” argues Alexander Sacha Von Bismark, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

A keel-billed Toucan in Costa Rica, a leader in recognising the value of its forests. (Credit: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock)

“It is scary to commit to transparency because it is an effective combatant of corruption.” This fear may extend to some of the world's businesses, too.

Speaking at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum earlier this year, Charles Barber, director of WRI’s Forest Legality Initiative, reiterated the key challenge.

“Technology by itself doesn't really do anything. Effective application of these technologies is dependent on the political and institutional environment.”

Jamison Ervin, manager of the UNDP’s Global Programme on Nature for Development, agrees. In an interview with Ethical Corporation, she highlighted Costa Rica as a leader in recognising the value of forests for its economy, and in creating sophisticated data monitoring tools to protect them.

Costa Rica has a system whereby the minute they detect forest cover change they know whether it's permitted. And they enforce it

“Groups like WRI have Global Forest Watch, which allows you to monitor forest cover change, but Costa Rica has a system whereby the minute they detect forest cover change they know not only where it's occurring, but whose land it is and whether the change [in land use] is permitted. And they enforce it.”

This is because UNDP in Costa Rica created a strategic tool called MOCUPP (Monitoreo de cambio de uso en paisajes productivos) that uses satellite information to provide farmers, policymakers, and companies with real-time images of commodity production and forest cover changes, overlaid with property records. This helps to identify landowners who may have violated laws against deforestation, or who, conversely, should benefit from payment for ecosystem services programmes due to adopting sustainable land management practices.

But, Ervin said, Costa Rica is “worlds away” from most countries. “Most countries haven’t entered the 21th century when it comes to data and spatial mapping.” A big barrier is lack of technical expertise and the right software to work with different data sets.

Drones are increasingly used to monitor deforestatione. (Credit: RinUm/Shutterstock)

In order to help countries fulfill their targets to conserve forests and other natural resources under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, UNDP and UN Environment have created the UN Biodiversity Lab, which aims to give policymakers in 140 countries around the world access to cutting-edge spatial data from NASA, UN agencies, and research institutions, along with an easy to use tool that allows them to analyse the data to inform their decision-making.

The project, still in its beta stage, is powered by MapX, a cloud-based solution for monitoring and mapping the use of natural resources, and involves over 70 different data sets to date. Users can drop and drag sets, then analyse the data for its implications on deforestation and other conservation and development issues. “You begin to see patterns you would not see without different data layers put together. And then you can say 'here's where we need to boost our efforts’,” explains Ervin.

You begin to see patterns, and then you can say 'here's where we need to boost our efforts'

UNDP is also working on a complementary project, funded by the US space agency NASA, to provide policymakers with access to new datasets on forest cover, forest connectivity, human footprint, and forest integrity.

It is being piloted in Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Indonesia, Peru, and Vietnam, but data from the project will later be added to the UN Biodiversity Lab so it can be used more widely.

While the UN Biodiversity Lab is currently only available to governments, Ervin says. “Eventually we want to empower communities and companies as well as governments to use it to make better decisions”.

NASA and the UNDP have created the One-Eye satellite imagery system. (Credit: NASA)

Companies can, however, gain access to Trase, a global data programme that was launched in 2016 and uses satellite data in combination with many other datasets to help companies monitor deforestation in their supply chains.

The open-access programme uses data analysis and visualisation and provides full coverage of export routes and buyers responsible for production and trade, and the associated sustainability risks of a given commodity. While initially focused on Latin American soy, Trase aims to map the trade of over 70% of total production in major forest risk commodities by 2021.

Simone Bauch, Latin America director at Global Canopy, an Oxford-based consultancy that developed Trase in partnership with the Stockholm Environment Institute, told the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum that it is a powerful new tool.

The burden of proof shifts from jurisdictions trying to reduce deforestation to include the actors that profit from deforestation

“Now we can also track the footprints of how the leaders from these countries and companies are acting,” she says. “We can link actors to the characteristics of the places they source from and create a deforestation footprint for each company. The burden of proof shifts from jurisdictions trying to reduce deforestation to include the actors that profit from deforestation.”

Better deforestation data is allowing NGOs and investors to put pressure on companies to reduce their deforestation risk, and to monitor the progress of the 450 companies that have already committed to deforestation-free supply chains by 2020.

At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September, 44 investors with $6.4trn in assets who are signatories to the Principles for Responsible Investment signed an open letter to the companies they invest in asking them to get out of deforestation-related commodities.

Better data pressures companies to reduce their deforestation risk. (Credit: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

Sonya Bhonsle, global head of supply chain at CDP, a non-governmental organisation that acts on behalf of investors to push companies to disclose risks on climate change, water, and deforestation, said: “Drones and satellites are increasingly useful data sources that companies and investors can use to monitor deforestation risks or ensure compliance with their policies and standards. However, they are not sufficient on their own.”

She points out that fewer than a quarter of 838 companies approached by CDP on behalf of investors last year responded to an information request on transparency in their timber, palm oil, cattle and soy supply chains.

“Despite rising concern from investors and customers, there has historically been a lack of transparency and engagement from companies on the issue and disclosure remains the exception rather than the rule,” she said.

It is critical that investors increase the pressure on companies to disclose

“It is critical that investors increase the pressure on companies to disclose, both by becoming a CDP forests programme signatory, and through direct engagement with companies in which they invest. The same goes for purchasing companies, who must engage with their suppliers to ensure full transparency and traceability down the supply chain."

She said CDP will be sending its requests for information to suppliers for the first time this year in a bid to help purchasing companies improve their deforestation strategy and cascade knowledge down the supply chain.

But it is just a start, she said. “More time, effort and resources need to be invested in building these companies’ knowledge of both the issue and how to begin to tackle it.”

Giles Crosse writes about sustainability, environment and development issues. He has contributed to the BBC, Economist, Edie, The Guardian and the United Nations Environment Programme.

Main picture credit: UN Biodiversity Lab


Global Forest Watch  deforestation  Convention on Biodiversity  WRI  NASA  Environmental Investigation Agency  UNDP  biodiversity 

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