Global Forests Watch – Online Deforestation Tracking

The World Resources Institute recently launched Global Forests Watch (GFW) 2.0, an online tool for tracking deforestation worldwide. I sat down with James Anderson, Forests Communication Officer at WRI, to talk about GFW.

Gromko: How does GFW work?

Anderson: The idea behind GFW is to make the best available forest information accessible to everyone. We have an online platform website and we put the best data that we can find. Some examples of data include forest change data from the University of Maryland, which was published in Science last fall and made a big splash because it was the first high resolution of the entire world’s forests and how they’re changing.

How does that fit into WRI’s mission?

James Anderson

WRI’s mission is to sustain the planet and its resources for future generations. There’s been a lot of excitement here about GFW because many people see it as a big tool to achieve that mission. Forests are facing a number of threats around the world and they are an extremely important resource in terms of storing carbon, providing clean air and water, as well as timber and non-timber forest products for people. But forests are being destroyed much faster than they’re being regrown. The UMD data show that we’re losing forests at the rate of 50 soccer fields every minute.

Figure 1: Forest cover change in Paraguay – deforestation in pink and forest gain in blue

Who do you hope to be the primary users of GFW?

The primary groups that we would love to have using this system are governments, businesses, and local communities. We hope that law enforcement will be able to use GFW to better enforce forests laws and reduce illegal logging. With business, we hope that they’ll be able to identify deforestation risks in their supply chain and generally help move the commodities business in a more sustainable direction. And with communities, we hope that they will be able to add data into GFW. We want to combine not only the top-down satellite data, but also crowd source a lot of our data.

What is the motivation for a company to want to use GFW to look at their supply chain?

A few different reasons. One reason is to avoid the bad and the other is to encourage the good. A lot of companies have seen very effective campaigns by advocacy organizations that have identified deforestation in their supply chains and have waged a PR campaign against them. That can be really damaging for companies’ business interests and public image and it can also potentially open the company up to lawsuit if they are breaking laws in the country. The other reason why companies may want to look at it is simply because they want to encourage the good. They have made strong commitments already and they want to strengthen them.

A company’s supply chain might be really complex and probably more complex than they are able to track. I’m thinking of a Nestle or a Unilever that is sourcing from a multitude of different suppliers who are also buying from sub suppliers. A company like that would need a lot more information than GFW can provide.

Traceability is a big issue. A lot of companies don’t have visibility all the way down their supply chain. The product that they’re buying, they don’t know where it originated, from what plantation or what country. And traceability is a big prerequisite for a lot of the work that GFW is currently able to do. The good news is that a lot of companies are starting to get there. We’re also committing to work more directly with companies to help them with that issue. Our plan is to pilot this work with a group of ten companies, specifically in the palm oil sector in Southeast Asia.

Are there any big research questions out there that you think GFW could help with?

One of the most immediate ones is taking this forest change data and using that to come up with the world’s newest and best calculation of carbon emissions from deforestation and land use change. There have been wildly different estimates of what the carbon emissions are from deforestation and land use change. You could create a new carbon layer and over lay the change data on that and get a one of the world’s best pictures of how carbon is changing in the world’s forests. We have plans to do that with the Woods Hole Institute, the University of Maryland, and other partners.

Switching gears, does GFW distinguish between natural forest and plantation forest?

The University of Maryland data and FORMA [another source of forest cover data] don’t distinguish between plantations and natural forests. And that’s potentially a big issue because of course they are very different. Natural forests store a lot more carbon and have a lot more benefits for biodiversity and ecosystem services than plantation forests do. But it’s also technically very challenging to distinguish between them. We’re hoping to build additional data layers that can help distinguish between natural forests and plantation forests.

Figure 2: Forest cover change in Indonesia and Malaysia – loss in pink and gain in blue

I noticed in both Indonesia there is a lot of loss and gain. I knew there’d be a lot of loss, but I hadn’t expected there to be so much gain. Do you think that represents plantation forestry?

As you say, what we are likely seeing there are natural forests being displaced by plantation forests. So the pink loss you see is that natural forest being cleared and the blue gain you see is the plantation grown in its place. And that’s potentially problematic for wildlife, biodiversity, carbon, and other reasons. So helping to make that distinction is pretty important.

You have a stories page and I thought that was great that you’re letting other people use GFW to tell their own stories. Are there any particular stories or trends that other people have found or you have found that are compelling?

You may have heard of the fires in Sumatra, where forest fires have spiked recently because they’re having a very extreme drought there. As a result, there’s smoke and haze settling over the province of Riau where 50,000 people are estimated to be affected. We’ve been able to take NASA’s real time fire alerts on GFW to determine the exact location of the fires and map them against company concessions. We’ve had an outpouring of interest and responses from that. People have a hunger for the data and I think they want to contribute to it. I think were just seeing the tip of the iceberg there.

(Disclosure: Duncan Gromko previously worked at World Resources Institute.)