Can communities monitor their own forests?
I met an old acquaintance on Monday night at one of the drinks receptions on the sidelines of the Rio+20 conference. Soren Hvalkof is a Danish anthropologist who has devoted his career to working with indigenous communities in Amazonia. Apart from when he was retelling stories about raising his children in the rainforest, he was most animated when discussing his work on the Monitoring Matters project, which tested the ability of local communities to collect accurate monitoring data. They found that, with a bit of training, the community monitors were as good as, if not better than, external ‘experts’. Soren was quite clear: communities can and should be the ones monitoring their lands and resources.
So what does this have to do with the Rio+20 conference, where thousands of delegates have come from around the world to try to decide on a way to manage the planet ‘for the future we want’? Remember the ‘Think global: act local’ motto from the original Rio conference in 1992? Well, if we want to create a future that we want, it’s going to be through local actions taken by communities. Whether they live in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the forests of Rio Amazonas, community-based management is key.
A new study* published last week by researchers at Bangor University, UK, has called into question the effectiveness of community forest management (CFM). Bowler and colleagues suggest that CFM might not be as beneficial in terms of carbon storage, livelihoods and biodiversity as we previously thought. The main problem though, is that it could be a really good idea for communities to be given control of their forest resources, but there hasn’t been a concerted effort to monitor and measure the effectiveness of this approach.
Several governments are incorporating the CFM approach into their REDD+ strategies. Therefore, there will need to be much greater and more standardised monitoring of community forests. And who better to do the monitoring than the communities themselves? Their local knowledge is the ideal starting point for the development of participatory monitoring that gathers important information on the state of the forest.
As shown on Tuesday this week at a side event hosted by Google, with minimal training, community monitors are able to make reliable observations of a range of indicators, from tree measures to wildlife counts. Until fairly recently, and even as part of the ground-breaking MOMA project, data would have been collected by community monitors on paper survey forms. But now there’s another option created by new technology such as smartphones, GIS and Google Earth. By providing a way for data to be collected, stored, analysed and shared, technology can create a bridge between community forest monitoring and policy making, such as the development of REDD+.
Like a number of other NGOs around the world, the Global Canopy Programme is working with local partners to develop a community forest monitoring scheme that will create a way for communities to gather data using smartphones that they can use to inform their own management and potentially contribute to national forest monitoring. You can find out more about the different NGOs’ projects in our new briefing paper released in Rio today. A key tool among these projects is Open Data Kit (ODK), an open source smartphone ‘app’ that runs on Google’s android operating system. ODK allows us to work with the community monitors on our Community MRV project in Guyana to create simple survey forms that they can use, for example, to map out areas of forest disturbance, which can then be compared with the Government’s forest degradation map. This is just one of the ways in which the community will be generating information that can help inform their own forest management as well as for sharing with the government.
More information about our project in Guyana can be found on our new blog: www.communitymrv.org. Come and join us as we continue on our learning journey to develop a system that the communities can use to monitor their forests to help them build the future that they want.
*Bowler, D.E., Buyung-Ali, L.M., Healey, J.R., Jones, J.P.G., Knight, T.M. and Pullin, A.S. (2012) Does community forest management provide global environmental benefit and improve local welfare? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10: 29-36