The world’s besieged forests have found friends in high places — in this case, very high. Remote-sensing satellites keep constant watch from hundreds of miles above the earth, collecting data that — when combined with information sharing and human networks around the world — can be used to preserve the world's forests, which are disappearing at an alarming net loss of 12.8 million acres each year (an area the size of Costa Rica).
Although deforestation has slowed slightly since the 1990s thanks to conservation efforts, the situation remains dire.
To organize these new technologies in defense of forests, the World Resources Institute (WRI) — in partnership with Google, the University of Maryland and the UN Environment Program — brought together a group of businesses, governments and nonprofits to form Global Forest Watch (GFW).
GFW uses cutting-edge technology and science to provide timely and precise information about the status of forest landscapes worldwide, including near-real-time alerts showing suspected locations of recent tree cover loss. It provides an interactive online forest monitoring and alert system designed to empower people everywhere with the information they need to better manage and conserve forest landscapes.
WRI launched the GFW website in February 2014. Alongside the launch, Global Forest Watch data went live on ArcGIS Online, extending the GIS cloud platform to Global Forest Watch data users.
Save trees, reduce greenhouse gases
Deforestation is responsible for around 11 to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and this will only continue to be compounded as forests disappear. By eliminating forests, we deprive ourselves of a potent weapon in the battle against climate change. Trees are natural carbon sequesterers — they "breathe in" carbon dioxide and "exhale" oxygen. But when forests are cleared, burned or degraded, we both release stored carbon into the atmosphere and eliminate a powerful tool for capturing it.
On the economic front, forests also provide ecosystem services valued at $33 trillion, or twice the U.S.'s annual GDP. These include facilitating food, water and air production, minimizing storm damage and producing a wide range of natural medicines.
But, contrary to popular belief, reversing deforestation is not as simple as replacing fallen trees with saplings — when old growth forests die, they can take anywhere from a century to several millennia to grow back, and the biodiversity they once boasted may never return. It is far more important to prevent the trees from being cut down in the first place.
This is no simple feat — a majority of the world’s forests are located in developing countries in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia where corrupt government, war and poverty makes it difficult to enforce forest protection policies. In these regions, illegal deforestation runs rampant in the form of unsanctioned logging, cattle ranching and subsistence land clearing.
And much of it is not even malicious — more than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for food, water, fuel and medicine, as well as for maintaining traditional cultures and livelihoods. For example, many rely on subsistence farming and burning fuel wood for energy.
Information technology changes the game
That is why GFW’s tool can make a real difference — it uses technology to empower anyone with internet access to become an activist. It is free and simple to use, enabling anyone to create custom maps, analyze forest trends, subscribe to alerts or download data for their local area or the entire world.
Users also can contribute to GFW by sharing data and stories from the ground via the system’s crowdsourcing tools, blogs and discussion groups. Special apps provide detailed information for companies that wish to reduce the risk of deforestation in their supply chains. But it’s not meant only for businesses — it also is designed to serve governments, NGOs, journalists, universities and the general public.
Although GFW is not capable of single-handedly preventing deforestation, sanctioned or otherwise, it can serve as kind of “watchdog” in affected areas, and provide new sources of accountability for governments failing to protect their trees.
“Managing the world’s forest resources is both a local and global undertaking, and technology has provided Global Forest Watch with an unprecedented opportunity to connect not only information and data, but people — whether they are forest managers, businesses and private sector or consumers across the globe,” Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in a statement.
“This is a great example of a community coming together and providing the world with a truly groundbreaking and pioneering product. Hopefully in a few years’ time we will be able to monitor the impact and the results in terms of what actually happens on the ground — that will be the greatest affirmation that the time for this idea had come.”