By Nigel Sizer We know remarkably little about what is happening to forests. Businesses currently have no way of determining whether or how much the soy, palm oil, or pulp and paper they use contribute to deforestation. So companies like Unilever and Nestlé, which have committed to halting deforestation in their supply chains, are unable to measure progress toward this important goal. Concerned citizens—whether the indigenous Cree of Quebec, traditional communities in Papua New Guinea, or a neighborhood association in Portland, Oregon—do not have access to up-to-date information about where forests are being cleared, planted, and restored around their communities. This is a huge knowledge gap considering that forests provide space for recreation and are vital to sustaining water supplies, regulating the climate, and providing staples like medicines, food, and shelter. And top government officials lack the current data necessary to make well-informed decisions about land use planning and protected areas—let alone quickly detect illegal deforestation and enforce the law. This information gap is a key reason why the world loses 50 soccer fields’ of forests every minute of every day—but it’s also a gap that’s about to become significantly more narrow. Today, we launch Global Forest Watch (GFW), a free, online system that aims to shine a light on what is happening to forests everywhere. Using satellites, open data, and crowdsourcing, GFW guarantees timely and reliable information about forests for anyone with access to an internet connection. A partnership of about 40 organizations convened by the World Resources Institute created the GFW platform. Core partners include Google, University of Maryland, Esri, the United Nations Environment Program, the Center for Global Development, and Imazon, with major funding from Norway, the U.S. and U.K. governments, the Global Environment Facility, and The Tilia Fund. Take a look at how GFW can help transform the world of forest information and governance:
Extraordinary advances in technology have made GFW possible. For example, the cloud computing power of Google Earth Engine combined with powerful new algorithms developed by the University of Maryland enable the GFW partnership to analyze hundreds of thousands of NASA satellite images quickly, cheaply, and automatically. What would have taken 15 years using one computer can now be processed in hours using the Google cloud. NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey have also been fundamental in this effort in making the raw imagery freely available. Expanding internet connectivity and ever-cheaper access to smart phones create the opportunity to put data into the hands of billions of people. GFW goes a step further, though, and crowd-sources information from people on the ground. Anyone can share their own forest information, photographs, and video with the world by uploading them to GFW.
Much more important than the technology, though, are the evolving efforts of governments, communities, and a handful of large companies to do a better job of managing forests. Brazil is a first-mover in putting information into action to protect forests. The Brazilian space agency pioneered near-real-time forest monitoring systems for the Brazilian Amazon through the DETER and PRODES programs, and Imazon, a Brazilian NGO, has developed an influential independent system. This frequently updated information has helped the nation crack down on illicit deforestation. Despite a slight uptick in 2013, the rate of forest clearing in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen 70 percent since 2004. GFW seeks to build on Brazil’s experience and make near-real-time forest alerts available to communities throughout the world. Indonesia has also recently taken steps to protect forests. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared and then extended a national forest moratorium, which halts new forest-clearing licenses across an area the size of Japan. The President also created a new federal agency, the Managing Agency for the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of Forests and Peatlands (“REDD+ Agency”), which is headed by a highly respected senior official charged with leading national coordination to reduce forest loss and degradation. Local communities—like the Surui in Brazil and indigenous federations like the Amazon-wide COICA—have long fought for the right to manage their forests. They are now turning to technology to help in that fight. For example, the Surui are using Google’s mapping tools to help police illegal loggers and estimate carbon stocks in their forest. GFW now helps extend that potential to hundreds of other communities. Most recently, some large companies have also adopted far-reaching policies to reduce the damage done to forests by agricultural commodity production. Unilever, Nestlé, Tesco, Marks and Spencer’s, and others have committed to end deforestation in their supply chains. The same is true for some major commodity suppliers. Singapore-based Wilmar, responsible for a remarkable 45 percent of the global palm oil trade, announced in December a sweeping set of changes to their palm oil sourcing procedures to better protect forests, workers, and communities. A few months earlier, Indonesian pulp and paper giant APP made a similar commitment. Another Indonesia-based conglomerate, APRIL, also committed to improved forest management in January of this year. GFW enables these commitments to be independently measured, shared, and openly debated. Governments can use the new information to assess the effectiveness of their efforts. Companies can suspend purchasing from suppliers suspected of clearing forests. Communities and NGOs can more easily monitor their surrounding forests and hold governments and companies accountable for their actions.
But of course, challenges remain. We still need better information about land tenure, forest use permits, plantation areas, and more. The GFW partnership will work over the coming years to further enrich its information and usability and make it easier to understand the causes of forest loss. We’d also like to get your feedback on how to make our tool even better. Now that Global Forest Watch has launched, we hope that citizens everywhere will use the system to demand greater disclosure, accountability, and transparency. Those behaving badly will have fewer places to hide. Those managing forests well will stand out for all to applaud.