The Woods Hole Research Center was like a miniature United Nations last month, as scholars from Africa, South America, and Asia took part in a two-week workshop at the Woods Hole Road campus.
They came to learn advanced satellite imaging techniques, and left at the end of September with maps that will help their countries manage their forests and take part in a potential global carbon credit trading system.
The pan-(bio)mass challenge
The WHRC is leading an effort to create the first pan-tropical biomass map that will demonstrate the future effects of deforestation and land use change across the globe. This information is key in developing the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) policy initiative being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Under the REDD system, countries like the United States that emit a large amount of greenhouse gas could purchase carbon credits from countries like Gabon that have a lot of forest, but need cash to continue to protect it.
The system is also designed to encourage countries like Kenya to build up its forests, reversing the trend of deforestation that threatens to increase not only global carbon emissions, but also the ability of its citizens to grow food and find safe drinking water.
Using the maps, governments and tropical forest stakeholders will be able to monitor and track changes to land cover, helping inform policy decisions, said Joseph Kellndorfer, a WHRC scientist co-leading the pan-tropical mapping effort.
Tropical deforestation is estimated to be the cause of about 17 percent of man-made global carbon emissions, which makes it an easy target for combating climate change, said Dr. Kellndorfer.
“These maps give us a first estimate of what we’re talking about trading,” he said.
As the scholars taking part in the workshop indicated, deforestation is caused by a variety of factors. While logging is an obvious source, agricultural expansion—exacerbated by population pressures and a turn to the cultivation of cash crops—is also taking a major toll on tropical forests across Africa and Southeast Asia.
In Colombia, a decades-long guerilla war is having an impact even in remote forests; in Bolivia, hydroelectric projects threaten to flood the lush jungle of the Amazon basin.
The forest for the trees
Poverty is the number one barrier to forest conservation, said Edward Ssenyonjo, a remote sensing specialist with the Ugandan National Forest Authority. “More than 80 percent of people depend on the natural environment, mainly forests, to survive. This is compounded by a population growth [rate] of 3.2 percent,” he said.
His colleague, Abel Siample, of the Zambia Forestry Department, said that investment in alternatives to charcoal production and agricultural expansion are the only way to stop encroachment in protected forests.
Joint forest management committees in Zambia and India are giving disenfranchised people a say in how REDD funds are distributed, said Mukund Srivastava, of the Indian Forest Survey.
With a structure based on equality for women and the rural poor, these committees are developing a model so that a portion of REDD revenue returns to the community to attract tourism or sustainable industries and build up infrastructure.
People realize it when they hit the wall, and there is no more forest, but they cannot stop without alternatives. It’s a human dilemma: we do not change our behavior until it becomes too late.
-Nadine Laporte, associate scientist
However, said WHRC associate scientist Nadine Laporte, throwing money at the problem is not a sure way to protect diminishing forests. Sensitive to the socio-economic hardships that people in developing countries face, she is working with the scholars to find solutions to deforestation while meeting the needs of impoverished people.
“In Africa, deforestation is done by people who are trying to feed their families,” said Dr. Laporte, pointing out that people are driven to cut down the forest in a quest to find wood for cooking and heating.
Think global, act local
Although REDD was not adopted by the UNFCCC Conference of Parties that met in Copenhagen last December, Dr. Laporte said it is only a matter of time before a global carbon-trading system is in place.
Already, there are several bilateral agreements in place between developing nations and high carbon-emitting countries and states. Progress on REDD achieved in Copenhagen will continue at the next COP meeting in Cancun, Mexico, starting in late November.
Shifting the focus of international climate talks to helping communities and developing nations solve their own problems, the field survey sessions that Dr. Laporte and her colleagues take part in reach some of the most rural or forested areas in the world.
Community capacity-building is the name of the game for Peter Ndunda, a GIS specialist with the Kenyan Green Belt Movement (GBM), a non-governmental organization founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.
By building up tree nurseries and embarking on a nationwide tree planting campaign, the GBM has been able to stem the trend of deforestation in part of Kenya. In addition, GBM offers civic and environmental education programs that help people understand how forests help retain soil and water, thereby supporting food production and safe drinking water.
While GBM has made great strides in the last 20 years, the biomass map Mr. Ndunda created at WHRC shows how much further the country has to go.
Indeed, great swaths of Kenya were colored in brown on his map, indicating low forest cover; while the green areas where GBM is active nonetheless indicate that human activity has spilled over the boundaries of designated conservation areas.
“How do you help communities increase their yields without compromising future generations?” Mr. Ndunda asked.
With additional income from REDD, communities will have the time to wait for the trees to grow, while also improving their farmland, he said.
“REDD provides a great opportunity to help resolve the global challenge of poverty. This is a huge economic and ecological benefit that we cannot quantify.”
If you teach a man to map…
Some of the scholars taking part in the WHRC workshop were able to create a map of the forest cover as well as the biomass capacity of their country.
Using readily-downloadable data from free sources like Google Earth–as well as sophisticated software and the 160 processing systems owned by the WHRC– the scholars were able to create forest-cover maps of their entire country with a 15-meter resolution, and biomass maps with 500 meters resolution.
Another benefit offered through the WHRC program is the use of satellite radar imaging, a powerful tool that can penetrate the cloud cover that tends to persist over tropical forests, Dr. Kellndorfer said.
That way, forest managers will have more accurate “snapshots” of a forest region, without gaps in data due to cloud cover.
That was a difficulty for Edersson Cabrera, a remote sensing expert with the Colombian ministry of the environment. Though he has been collecting data on the country’s diverse range of forests for the past two decades, thick cloud cover in some years led to gaps in knowledge about how land use had changed over time.
Eric Armijo, of the Friends of Nature Foundation in Bolivia, said the maps he is working on with the WHRC will give his organization the tools it needs to make sure conservation policies are in place— and working.
“It’s a powerful way of pushing the decision-makers,” he said.
Tags: Abel Siample, biomass, cap and trade, carbon credit, Climate Change, CO2 emissions, deforestation, Edersson Cabrera, Edward Ssenyonjo, Eric Armijo, Falmouth, forest cover, forest management, global warming, Green Belt Movement, Indian Forest Survey, Joseph Kellndorfer, Kenya, Mukund Srivastava, Nadine Laporte, Nguyen Hanh Quyenv, pan-tropical map, Peter Ndunda, REDD, Ugandan National Forest Authority, UN Climate Conference, Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology, Woods Hole Research Center, Zambia Forestry Department
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