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Sentinel Solutions for the Anthropocene

The NHSL team of researchers in El Tuma
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This article is a longform, part of a new series of FTA blogs aiming at providing in-depth analysis of mature FTA projects. By consulting/interviewing all the scientists involved in the study, these longforms give a detailed overview of specific projects, augmented by the comments from the scientists who developed them. This longform is issued in conjunction with International Mother Earth Day 2020.

A peculiar perspective on the first reports from the pioneering Sentinel Landscapes program

We are living in the Anthropocene.

Sometime in the 1950s, it is proposed, we finally broke from 11,650 years of history and entered a entirely new epoch. Rather than glacial advance and retreat, this epoch is defined by the industrial activity of humankind.

Deforestation, soil erosion, construction, river dams and nuclear weapons will leave permanent relics in the stratigraphy of the earth: as deposits in the sedimentary record, as ghostly technofossils, or as lethal fallout signatures.

Due to human activity, global rates of extinction are perhaps 100-1000 times above the normal background rate. At the same time, invasive species introduced or unwittingly spread by humans are homogenizing global ecosystems. Claims of a sixth major extinction event are not exaggerated and the cause, most scientists agree, is human.

Fossil fuels and land use changes have led to a precipitous rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The oceans are acidifying; the polar ice caps are melting; the consequences are daunting.

There are two possible responses – if we rule out burying our heads in the degraded soil – either we wait for nature to overthrow industry or we apply our human ingenuity, so often the curse of ecological wellbeing, to its restoration.

But how can we hope to turn things around if we do not know what is driving deforestation and degradation? Or if we do not know how many trees we have or how quickly they are disappearing? Or if we do not fully understand the consequences we face if forests disappear from the landscape?

To develop interventions that will work, the first step is knowing what is going on there, and for this we need data, credible data, large data, multi-year data.

Medical research has epidemiological studies that monitor large cohorts of the population over long periods of time to track global health and help predict and eliminate disease. What does forest conservation have? Sentinel Landscapes.

Sentinel Landscapes: A health check for tropical land use

Driven by the Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s (FTA) program led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the Sentinel Landscapes  initiative is an audacious commitment to collect data on biophysical, social, economic and political dimensions across and monitor respective indicators across a network of eight carefully chosen tropical forest landscapes over extended periods of time.

Using the same standardized methodologies, this data promises to provide common ground for comparison – and, crucially, extrapolation. The Sentinel Landscapes program is the global health check that we desperately need so that we can face climate change, land degradation, poverty and food security with clear vision.

The idea for Sentinel Landscapes was hatched during conversations between colleagues at World Agroforestry (ICRAF) and CIFOR in 2011 and 2012. Since those first conversations, more and more academic organizations have joined the FTA program and participated to the Sentinel landscapes initiative, including Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD), Bioversity International, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. In the words of one scientist, it has always been “super collaborative”.

Sentinel Landscapes have now been established across borders in Borneo-Sumatra, the Nile-Congo, Cameroon, the Mekong, West Africa, Western Ghats in India and the Western Amazon. But the first to report, in February 2020, was the Sentinel Landscape of Nicaragua-Honduras.

Sentinel Landscapes combine GIS data with on-the-ground samples and surveys

The Nicaragua-Honduras Sentinel Landscape

Sentinel Landscape stocktaking pilot study: Report Nicaragua-Honduras [pdf]
The lead author of the report is Norvin Sepúlveda at CATIE, who is coordinating the Nicaragua-Honduras Sentinel Landscape (NHSL).

The NHSL is a “mosaic of forests, agricultural land, cattle ranches and agroforestry systems” covering an area the size of the Republic of Ireland or twice the size of the Netherlands.

Straddling the border of two countries, the NHSL encompasses the largest remaining forest area in Central America and hosts at least twelve different ecosystems, including cloud forest, premontane humid tropical forest and pine savannahs.

According to the new report, as well as astonishing botanical and fauna diversity, the landscapes of the NHSL also sustain 822,175 farm families and 21,000 indigenous peoples.

Different kind of “forest transitions” do take place in the area, representing different situations along the “forest transition curve”  concept coined by FTA.

The “forest transition curve” concept (FTA, 2011)

Nicaragua is currently plummeting down the “forest transition” curve, with forest cover being lost at an increasingly rapid rate. Meanwhile, Honduras is a late-transition country, with deforestation slowing in whatever small fraction of forests remain.

It would be impossible to survey such a vast territory in its entirety, so as part of the Sentinel Landscapes (SL) monitoring sampling methodology, the NHSL team selected four study blocks, two in Nicaragua and two in Honduras, which each represent different points on the forest transition curve. Each block is 100 sq km.

The concept of the SL was to integrate three different standardized methodologies to collect:

  1. biophysical data
  2. political and institutional data and
  3. socio-economic data.

These harmonized data collection modules were coordinated by the Research Methods Group (RMG) at ICRAF. The work on biophysical methods began in West Africa in 2005, with the research of Tor-Gunnar Vågen of ICRAF

“We chose the four sites using GIS data and a special set of criteria,” Sepúlveda explains, “so that we got a range of different sites and a combination of diverse farm typologies and conservation issues.”

In Nicaragua, the El Tuma La Dalia study block is mountainous terrain, largely cultivated with coffee, but with some pine and cloud forests. Also in Nicaragua, Columbus Mine is less cultivated with staple cereal crops, but has more forest and is known for its tropical humid climate.

Across the border in Honduras, Rio Platáno is primarily forest with little cultivation, whereas the Rio Blanco study block, nestled in a valley, is mostly pasture for livestock with only small pockets of surviving forest.

Beyond case studies: the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework

Tor-Gunnar Vågen is now head of the GeoScience lab at ICRAF, based in Nairobi, Kenya. For the past fifteen years, Vågen and soil systems scientist Leigh Ann Winowiecki, have worked to implement the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF).

A systematic method for collecting data and measuring land degradation, the LDSF builds up a biophysical baseline that covers key indicators including land use, land cover, land degradation, soil health, topography and impact on habitat..

But the real strength of the LDSF is in its consistency: it can be applied to any landscape and will give standardized and thus comparable data.

Before the LDSF, most forest conservation data was based on case studies that answered a specific question in a specific location. Although very useful, case study data makes it impossible to compare contexts or to generalize, and impossible to answer questions like ‘What role do trees have on farms in different locations and contexts?’ or ‘What is the potential for soil to sequester carbon in different locations and contexts?’

As a standardized, randomized data collection method, the LDSF solves this problem and helps scientists compare and scale up their localized findings into potentially globally-applicable conclusions.

“Applying the same framework and then replicating this across most major ecosystems means we can start answering the bigger questions,” Vågen says. “We can look at the larger patterns.”

At the start of the Sentinel Landscapes program in 2012, Vågen and Winowiecki trained the local field teams in Nicaragua and in Honduras so that data collection would be consistent.

Tracking degradation and climate change

From the biophysical baseline indicators, Sepúlveda, Vågen, Winowiecki and their fellow authors expect the NHSL to suffer badly from the impacts of climate change, particularly when it comes to the flow and contamination of the water supply.

The geographical location of Nicaragua and Honduras make both countries vulnerable to extreme weather events and a pattern of freak rainstorms alternating with withering drought is becoming more common.

In late 2007, Hurricane Felix destroyed almost 510,764 ha of forest in northeastern Nicaragua – that’s an area four times the size of New York City.

Of course, it is not only Nicaragua-Honduras that faces the challenges of climate change. The eight Sentinel Landscapes scattered across the tropics are critical for monitoring the progress of climate change with a consistent methodology, over long time periods.

But seeing climate change impacts is irrelevant if not looked through the lenses of land-use and land-use change impacts. Although the forest is now in recovery, the NHSL report found that slash and burn agriculture and livestock are encroaching on former forest landscapes.

“One thing that isn’t looked at enough is the interaction between climate change and land degradation,” Vågen says. “When we started out, the focus was more on land degradation per se: soil erosion, loss of soil function and the reduction in soil quality due to land-use change. But of course this data has many other applications and understanding the impacts of climate change is one of them.”

The data, published in the FTA Sentinel Landscapes portal, warn that vulnerable ecosystems may collapse in mere decades once they hit a tipping point of human-induced degradation, combined with the impacts of climate change.

“The ability of a landscape to adapt to changes in climate is affected by land degradation and, of course, degraded land can contribute to emissions.”

The Sentinel Landscapes program tracks this degradation, but the data also points to solutions.

Sentinel solutions: Soil organic carbon

The Sentinel Landscapes data offers remarkable insights into where governments, municipalities and farmers can optimize their landscapes from multiple perspectives, including carbon capture and protection from erosion, and the potential for virtuous circles.

“For example, we see higher tree densities in non-eroded soil,” Winowiecki says, “and higher soil organic carbon in non-eroded landscapes.”

Most people know that forests can act as carbon sinks, but of the total carbon found in terrestrial ecosystems nearly 80 percent is actually stored in the soil.  Soil carbon reservoirs are also at risk, and the team has published widely on the link between land degradation and soil organic carbon.

Furthermore, Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, estimates that, with cultivation, the world’s soil has lost up to 70 percent of its original carbon stock. If researchers could find a way to maximize soil organic carbon sequestration, then that would be a significant blow in our Herculean labor to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

According to the new report, soil organic carbon levels are low across all four of the NHSL study blocks. Even small increases in soil organic carbon, when multiplied over large areas, would make a measurable difference – as well as increasing overall soil quality.

“One of the things we’re able to do now is map soil organic carbon over very large areas and look at the potential for storage of carbon in the soil,” Vågen explains.

Combining field data collected with the LDSF and remote sensing imagery from satellite, Vågen and his team are able to produce maps of key soil and land health indicators at a scale relevant to farmers and decision makers, for example at 30 meter resolution, with high accuracy (using the Landsat satellite imagery, the resolution is 30 meter squared).

“We can say what the trends are and what the potential is to store carbon in the soil,” Vågen says. “And we can do that down to the level of individual farmers.”

Of course, this information, however precise, would mean nothing at all unless the farmers could do something about it.

Winowiecki, a specialist in soil organic carbon, has good news: “With good land and landscape management we can increase soil organic carbon,” she says. “But the data shows wide variation, even within one site, so it’s important that we tailor the management to each specific farm.”

It sounds like a lot of work, but it should come as no surprise that there is no “one size fits all” solution.

“We talk a lot about ‘Options by context’,” Winowiecki says. “That means developing local options for the local context.”

Different areas can vary enormously, not only by physical environment, but also by local governance and even household structure. These factors go beyond the LDSF method and the second strand of the Sentinel Landscape approach is a socio-economic survey that attempts to capture the wider context in which the landscape is embedded.

“For any intervention to work,” Winowiecki says, “you have to understand the context and that’s exactly what the Sentinel Landscapes have done.

Context is everything

The socio-economic surveys was every bit as impressive an undertaking as the biophysical baseline study of the LDSF. The development of the socio-economic methodology and design of the household module was coordinated by Anja Gassner, while the subsequent analysis of data generated for all the landscapes was led by Brian Chiputwa (both with the Research Methods Groups at ICRAF) in consultation with CATIE.

The socio-economic surveys were designed to capture baseline information on households’ production systems, livelihood portfolios, asset endowment and use of natural resources such as forests. This data was then used to construct various indicators that can be used as proxies for household’s dependency on natural resources (land, water and forests),  food security and nutrition and poverty status. These indicators can provide important insights into household economic activities.

Based in Costa Rica, CATIE agroforestry scientist Arlene López-Sampson helped analyze the reams of NHSL data. “You can’t just look at the condition of the trees and ignore the people,” López-Sampson says, “because they are constantly choosing among options and it’s them we need to address. Sentinel Landscapes are relevant because they recognize the importance of people as agents of change and bring them back into the equation.”

An example of Household Module Instrument used for the NHSL household surveys [pdf]
Teams of researchers spoke to 849 households in dozens of communities across the four study blocks of the NHSL, spending 3-5 days in each village, conducting interviews and workshops that explored in detail the relationship between people and landscape.

“There are a lot of people involved and we need the trust of the local municipalities and grassroots organizations,” López-Sampson says. “It’s very context dependent. What’s happening in Nicaragua is different to what’s happening in Honduras and to what’s happening in other parts of the world.

Norvin Sepúlveda coordinated the field teams in Nicaragua and Honduras: “A combination of GIS and household data is very important to give us a better idea of what is happening,” he says. “While the GIS did the overview, we were face to face with the people, taking information directly from them.”

Sepúlveda gives a good example of how the dual approach works. “In one area, the GIS showed patches of forest left,” he says. “So we went to the household to find out why: it was to protect the water supply.

Trees act like giant sponges, collecting and filtering rainwater before releasing it gradually into streams and rivers. Take away the trees and you get flash floods, soil erosion and a sharp reduction in water quality.

“It’s very important for us to find out why forest is left standing,” Sepúlveda says. “It often depends on a farmer’s education, on the state of his land, and on whether he has legal rights to the land.”

And so we come to the thorniest issue faced by the NHSL team: conflict and governance.

Within the socio-economic surveys, the institutional mapping and natural resource governance activities were implemented using the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) methodology, developed by Scientists at the University of Michigan, USA.

“The one big challenge”

“The major challenge of the whole project was operating in the border,” Sepúlveda says. “Lack of governance there is the one big challenge.”

“In Nicaragua, El Tuma La Dalia is doing well with restoration, earning some extra money for coffee farmers,” Sepúlveda explains. “But at Columbus Mine, the deforestation has been very bad.”

Columbus Mine is the home of the Tasba-Pry indigenous group and, according to the report, their practice of communal land ownership, although recognized by the government, is coming into conflict with the growing population of settlers who pursue private ownership.

It is a similarly mixed story in Honduras: “At Rio Platáno they are approaching forest management, which is good,” Sepúlveda says. “But in Rio Blanco livestock is taking down all the forest that is left.”

Rio Platáno is home to several different indigenous groups, whose land rights have not been recognized by the government. As a result, the NHSL study reports, they have fallen victim to land grabs.

“We also have problems there with drug trafficking,” López-Sampson says. “It’s really hard to work in that kind of geography because it’s not only about land management; it’s also about organized criminal activities.”

But of course these kinds of challenges are not unique to the NHSL and researchers must understand the whole picture in order to change behaviors.

“We chose a combination of both different contexts and people,” Sepúlveda explains. “It makes for a contrast to the other agricultural sites, which are more stable.”

Sentinel solutions: Making change happen

The Sentinel Landscapes program is a breathtaking display of the research possible when scientists from different disciplines collaborate at every scale, from collecting soil samples on the ground to capturing remote sensing data from space to conducting focus group discussions with farmers or interviewing individual farmers on their farms.

Discussion groups with farmers and local communities in Rio Blanco

“We need a lot of people to do our work,” López-Sampson says. “The coordination of knowledge is really important: between academics, but also among the local organizations who are doing all the interventions we try to promote so that we all have healthy ecosystems.”

The team hopes that the work they have done in the NHSL can help Honduras move further up that forest transition curve and encourage Nicaragua to bottom out their deforestation sooner rather than later.

“Trees are now part of the agenda,” López-Sampson says. “Trees are now seen as important to have on the farms, not only to provide timber, but as part of local community strategies to provide incomes and help maintain a healthy ecosystem by providing a link between the landscape and the agroforestry system.”

Meanwhile, Vågen is ambitious about the future: “Using LDSF we can accurately track changes over time and create bespoke interventions for specific plots and specific farmers to maximize land conservation, biodiversity and soil organic carbon capture.”

It is clear that the long term monitoring of the Sentinel Landscapes approach is absolutely necessary to bring clarity to the slow processes of landscape management and climate change.

“Five, ten years isn’t long enough,” Sepúlveda concludes. “I really hope these projects carry on, in order to see restoration, in order to see people change their minds and in order to see the new generations make change happen.”

The ultimate goal of the Sentinel Landscapes approach is to build up on these diverse data over longer periods and be able to integrate the socio-economic, biophysical and political indicators. For example, with long-term data, it will be interesting to map out causal links between household poverty levels (see diagram below)  and land degradation over time in the four sites; and how these vary through different governance structures across communities.

The Economist recently published an interesting report in 2017 titled “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. With adequate investment and if collected in a dynamic, responsive and consistent way, big data approaches that monitor and integrate indicators from diverse disciplines such as the natural and social sciences, can lead to more complete and actionable set of insights for better adaption and mitigation strategies against climate change. Initiatives such as the SL could well be the next oil in future.

 “A warning shot”: Sentinel Landscapes research and Coronavirus

At the time this article was written, all the NHSL scientists were already all working from home (be it in Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Kenya), in a global attempt to slow the transmission of coronavirus. “Our heavy reliance on industrial agriculture, with large, uniform herds, makes us vulnerable to outbreaks,” Vågen says. “The information we can provide, such as landscape diversity, could be a valuable contribution down the road.”

As animals and people are forced into closer proximity either in landscapes because wildlife habitats are anthropized, or through wild food markets, the probability of a virus making the leap to humans increases.

Vågen warns that ecological degradation makes diseases such as Covid-19 much more likely and, in our hyper-connected world, we need to start paying closer attention.

“It’s one of those up and coming things that we need to be looking at,” Vågen says. “And not just coronavirus, but other diseases,” he adds. “For me, it’s a warning shot. It’s something that we need to understand better, how it relates to the state of our planet in general.”

In times past, sentinels were flesh and blood watchers responsible at all hours to warn their kinsfolk of any approaching existential threat – whether wild beast, enemy army, fire or plague.

Today, our most valuable sentinels are scientific: the ice core samples that warn us of global heating; the remote sensing data that warn us of deforestation.

The Covid-19 outbreak shows what can happen when we have no sentinels – or, worse, when we ignore them. Without sufficient, credible warning, our society becomes extremely vulnerable to unseen existential threats.

The United Nations has sworn to dedicate the coming decade to halting ecosystem degradation and restoring already degraded ecosystems. But if science is to guide us safely through the Anthropocene, then we need to support our scientific watchers through continuous monitoring programs like Sentinel Landscapes.

More crucially, we need to listen.

 


By David Charles. This article was produced by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.


Selected references

Chiputwa, B., Ihli, H.J., Wainaina, P., Gassner, A., 2020. Accounting for the invisible value of trees on farms through valuation of ecosystem services, in: Rusinamhodzi, L. (Ed.), The Role of Ecosystem Services in Sustainable Food Systems. Elsevier Inc., pp. 229–261. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-816436-5.00012-3

Chiputwa, B. 2016. An exploratory guide on constructing socioeconomic indicators for the Sentinel Landscape Project: The case of the Nicaragua-Honduras Sentinel Landscape. Nairobi, Kenya: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), 56 p. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8GL6bTxo5ekMXRzN003ck1hV1E/view

Chiputwa, B., Spielman, D.J., Qaim, M., 2015. Food Standards, Certification, and Poverty among Coffee Farmers in Uganda, World Development Vol. 66, pp. 400–412. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X1400271X

Coulibaly, J.Y., Chiputwa, B., Nakelse, T., Kundhlande, G., 2017. Adoption of agroforestry and the impact on household food security among farmers in Malawi. Agric. Syst. 155, 52–69. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308521X17303001

FTA, 2011. CGIAR Research Program 6 – Forests, Trees and Agroforestry: Livelihoods, Landscapes and Governance Proposal. Document available here

Pramova, E.; Lavorel, S.; Locatelli, B.; Colloff, M.J.; Bruley, E. 2020. Adaptation in the Anthropocene: How we can support ecosystems to enable our response to change, CIFOR. https://doi.org/10.17528/cifor/007588

Sepúlveda N, Vågen T-G, Winowiecki LA, Ordoñez J, Chiputwa B, Makui P, Somarriba E and López-Sampson, A. 2020. Sentinel Landscape stocktaking pilot study: Report Nicaragua-Honduras. Working Paper 2. Bogor, Indonesia: The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). https://doi.org/10.17528/cifor/007537

Vågen, T.-G.; Winowiecki, L.A. Predicting the Spatial Distribution and Severity of Soil Erosion in the Global Tropics using Satellite Remote Sensing. Remote Sens. 2019, 11, 1800. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/11/15/1800

Vågen, Tor-G., Winowiecki, L., Tondoh, J.E., Desta, L.T. and Gumbricht, T. 2016. Mapping of soil properties and land degradation risk in Africa using MODIS reflectance. Geoderma. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geoderma.2015.06.023

Winowiecki, L., Vågen, T-G. and Huising, J. 2016. Effects of land cover on ecosystem services in Tanzania: A spatial assessment of soil organic carbon. Geoderma. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016706115000816)

Vågen, T-G and Winowiecki, L. 2013. Mapping of soil organic carbon stocks for spatially explicit assessments of climate change mitigation potential. Environmental Research Letters. 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015011

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  • New online platform promotes collaboration in the Congo Basin

New online platform promotes collaboration in the Congo Basin

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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Aerial view of the Congo River. Photo by A. Gonzalez/CIFOR

To address the duplication of initiatives in the Congo Basin, the Central African Forest Observatory (OFAC) – whose mission is to provide data to decision makers so they can create evidence-based policies – recently launched an interactive project monitoring platform. The online tool enables access to data and projects in the region, to promote collaboration and put an end to wasted resources.

Conservation of the Congo Basin forests is a critical, but complex undertaking. This massive tropical forest block, the world’s second largest, covers over 200 million hectares and spreads across six countries in Central Africa.

It is home to some of the world’s most critically endangered animals, such as lowland gorillas, as well as over 10,000 endemic tropical plant species.

It also provides livelihoods to 60 million people, who depend on forest resources for food, energy, and jobs – a significant economic contribution in one of the world’s least developed regions. And as if this was not enough, it stores around 46 billion metric tons of carbon, benefitting the whole planet facing climate change.

The importance of this ecosystem means that a multitude of actors, including donors, implementing agencies, national governments, and local organizations, are simultaneously carrying out conservation and development efforts on the ground.

While international interest, availability of funds, and political will are certainly good news, duplications of initiatives do happen. Information gaps and a lack of overarching coordination stand in the way of achieving environmental and development objectives.

“In the last two decades, the region has seen an exponential increase in the number of actors in the forest-environment sector,” explained Quentin Jungers, OFAC’s technical advisor, who leads the IT team behind the platform.

“The new project monitoring platform answers calls for better coordination at the regional and national levels. It will allow organizations and governments to share information, promote collaborations, and ensure harmonization.”

Read also: Can DRC’s community forests alleviate poverty?

A woman carries vegetables in Yangole, DRC. Photo by A. Fassio/CIFOR

A call for a regional approach

Better coordination has long been part of the Congo Basin conservation agenda. In 1999, the Central Africa Forest Commission (COMIFAC), became the birth-child of all ten Central African countries; its mandate to oversee the sustainable management and conservation of the Congo Basin’s forest ecosystems.

In 2005, the finalizing of a first Convergence Plan provided a common strategy for the COMIFAC Member States and international partners to reach sustainable goals.

OFAC officially became part of COMIFAC in 2011, leading to the development of an integrated monitoring and evaluation system just a few years later.

“There are so many initiatives to support the sustainable management of Central Africa’s forests, that sometimes it is difficult for COMIFAC to have a clear vision of all the efforts that contribute to the implementation of our Convergence Plan,” explained Vincent Medjibe, OFAC coordinator at COMIFAC. “We expect this platform to give us an accurate overview of what is happening on the ground”.

Read also: Observatory addresses urgent need to monitor forests in East Africa

Digital solutions

The development of the project monitoring platform, the first of its kind in Central Africa, began in 2015 with a basic repository and took over 8 months of intense work to convert into an analytical platform, which was finally ready last year.

“We started by developing a basic database with experts, projects, and capacity building initiatives in the fields of environment and climate change, sustainable management of natural resources, and conservation,” said Donald Djossi, programmer at OFAC. Though he says the real technical challenge was to find the “interconnections” of the projects, so as to provide a comprehensive cross-view of all initiatives.

“Our goal was that all kinds of users, tech-savvy or not, could benefit from it,” added Jungers. Appetite for the platform is clear. Though it was only launched a couple of months ago, it already has an average of 60 users per week.

Users can benefit from a directory and an interactive map showing geolocation and explanation of each initiative, an analysis tab that examines the current state of projects, as well as a report generation tool.

People gather outside the parish of Notre Dame de l’Assomption in Yangambi, DRC. Photo by A. Fassio/CIFOR

Learn more: Go to the project monitoring platform website 

Contributions needed

This platform is a collaborative initiative, and its success will depend on the organizations’ will to share their projects’ information. Until now, over 651 projects have already been submitted, out of which 508 have been validated and published, a significant amount considering that they account for 5 billion euros of funding.

To contribute, it is first necessary to create a user account. This gives organizations access to a private module. Then they can fill out a form for each project. “That’s all is needed,” said Djossi.

After a project is submitted, OFAC’s team reviews the form to ensure that all information is accurate and to avoid duplications. “We need to go through this validation process to ensure that our platform is a reliable source,” explained Jungers.

To encourage organizations to feed the platform, with their user account they also get access to a free monitoring tool that can help them track the progress of their projects. “They can have a report with one click”, said Djossi.

The next step for OFAC is to use the information on this platform to produce a regional publication called “The State of the Projects”, expected in 2020. As a complementary instrument, it will analyze the impact of projects in the Congo Basin in the last 15 years, looking to better integrate them into national and regional environment policies.

“The State of the Projects will help regional policymakers understand what has been done to conserve Central Africa’s forests, and what still needs to be done,” concluded Jungers.

By Ahtziri Gonzalez, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.


This research was supported by the RIOFAC,  funded by the European Union.

This work is also part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, ICRAF, INBAR and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Collecting gender-disaggregated data, and what to do with it 

Collecting gender-disaggregated data, and what to do with it 

A man holds sirih leaf in Indonesia. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

A man holds sirih leaf in Indonesia. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Collecting robust sex-disaggregated data on forests and climate is one thing, but analyzing it and making it available to the right players is another.

Under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 48th session of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI 48) took place from April 30 to May 10, 2018, in Bonn, Germany.

An in-session workshop at SBI 48, focused on differentiated impacts of climate change and gender-responsive climate policy and action, featured a number of prominent speakers, including CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) gender equality and social inclusion team member Markus Ihalainen, who is also a gender researcher at FTA’s lead center, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The workshop was mandated in Marrakech as an element of the extended and enhanced Lima work program on gender, SBI 48 chair Emmanuel Dlamini stated in opening the workshop. The topic of the workshop was elaborated last year, in a decision that established the first gender action plan under the UNFCCC, he added.

In the workshop’s first panel discussion, speakers addressed the why and how of sex-disaggregated data in identifying differentiated impacts and informing climate policy and action. Collectively, the discussions aimed to help bring to life the gender action plan, with Ihalainen speaking specifically on sex-disaggregated data in relation to policy and action on REDD+, forests, trees and agroforestry.

Ihalainen’s presentation, based on a submission from CIFOR that was made on behalf of FTA and in partnership with colleagues from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and Bioversity International, explained by means of background that the agriculture, forestry and other land uses sector (AFOLU) is responsible for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, half of which results from deforestation and forest degradation, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In light of this, Ihalainen stated, forest- and tree-based mitigation action holds a lot of potential, but the ecosystem services provided by forests are also critical for adaptation and for reducing social vulnerability – such as by providing safety nets to communities if crops fail, offering protection against extreme weather, regulating water flows, and enhancing soil nutrient retention.

Data shows a clear division of labor in terms of ‘who does what?’, Ihalainen explained, regarding the links between gender, climate change and forest- and tree-based landscapes. This can translate to gender-differentiated perceptions and knowledge in terms of natural resources or climate change.

“Just like in the agricultural sector, there are rampant inequalities in access and control over productive assets, including land, trees, credit, information and extension services,” he said. “As well as inequalities in decision-making power.”

A couple goes fishing in Indonesia. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

These inequalities result in differentiated vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities. Research illustrates that in order to ensure programmatic interventions reach both women and men:

  • Gender constraints regarding time use, resources and labor need to be considered.
  • We need to move beyond male and female binaries and collect and analyze more socially disaggregated data on vulnerabilities.
  • We need to understand that gender relations are dynamic, and change over time.
  • We need continuous efforts to collect and analyze data to understand how gender relations are affected by climate change or responses to it.

So how can sex-disaggregated data support policy and action in the forest sector?

“In looking at the forest sector, we can see that gender considerations have largely been absent in policymaking,” said Ihalainen, nothing a lack of systematic data, especially at national levels.

Many climate policies and programs in AFOLU aim to change land-use practices, for example with climate-smart agriculture, large-scale agroforestry, or land and forest restoration. These policies are often informed by a cost-benefit analysis at either community or farmer level.

“The logic is that costs incurred by communities or farming households due to this land-use change should be outweighed by immediate or future benefits, to incentivize land-use change,” said Ihalainen.

“But what’s often overlooked is that households are made up of many different members who might experience different costs or benefits from these changes. In order to accurately assess and attribute costs and benefits that are associated with different policy options, robust intra-household level data is critical.”

Thus, understanding how and by whom land is used and is critical for mitigating adverse impacts.

Mismatches between costs and benefits at the intra-household level can risk increasing inequalities within households, decreasing women’s wellbeing and serving as a disincentive for women’s participation. This shows that gender-blind policies and actions can sacrifice efficiency and long-term sustainability, while also jeopardizing gender equality and women’s wellbeing.

On the other hand, “when climate policy is gender-responsive, there is evidence to show it can help level gender equalities while generating better institutional and environmental performance,” said Ihalainen.

But these synergies cannot just be assumed, he warned. Instead they must be built on thorough gender analysis and robust data.

“If we lack an understanding of the differentiated opportunities and constraints that women and men face, we risk tasking women with saving the environment without addressing any of the structural constraints,” he added.

A dwelling is constructed in a forest in West Kalimantan. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

He admitted that tradeoffs do exist between different objectives, but that incorporating gender-specific targets and conducting thorough gender analysis can help to identify and mitigate potential tensions.

During the workshop, participants – consisting of Party delegates and representatives from observer organizations – stressed the lack of national-level sex-disaggregated statistics.

Indeed, a recent UN Women report found that only 10 out of 54 gender-specific indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were produced with sufficient quality and regularity to allow for reliable monitoring on the global level. However, while it is indeed important to address challenges on the statistical front, a lack of national-level sex-disaggregated data should not hinder gender-responsive policy altogether.

“We should not think that the lack of national-level sex-disaggregated data on a number of climate-related issues means we can’t do evidence-based gender-responsive climate policy,” Ihalainen said following the event. “A lot of data and knowledge already exists, and it’s often more about establishing ways for that knowledge to inform policy. Where there are data gaps, partnerships can be established with research institutions and other stakeholders so that they can be addressed effectively.”

“National surveys are very expensive, and in some cases only occur every 10 years or so. Policy needs to move faster than that – 2030 is when we are supposed to have achieved the SDGs, not the deadline for getting our data and monitoring systems in order. So while it’s important to address national data gaps, policy making needs to focus on what we already know and make sure there are mechanisms for evidence and expertise from different stakeholders to inform policy,” he added.

“And even though you base your policies on the best data, you will never be sure your intervention will yield the anticipated results. So building in safeguards and robust, innovative monitoring systems, and allowing for adaptive learning is really critical too.”

Aside from establishing mixed-gender field teams, collecting sex-disaggregated data and capturing other forms of social difference, partnerships were identified as a key priority to ensuring that data is analyzed and validated, and fed back to policies and programs.

Many relevant guidelines already exist, including some developed by FTA partners, with Ihalainen emphasizing that the program was able to support parties in collecting and analyzing data and developing gender-responsive policies in the forestry sector – steps that will help contribute toward the gender action plan.

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA Communications and Editorial Coordinator.


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • Research impact and partnership: Using data to take decisions in Turkana County, Kenya

Research impact and partnership: Using data to take decisions in Turkana County, Kenya

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shared-screenshotWhat if governments and parliamentarians had a way of knowing where their citizens needed what exactly, what condition the land was in and where to put their money most efficiently to most effectively address multiple issues simultaneously? Spatial scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) are supporting the county government of Turkana, Kenya in doing exactly that.

But let’s start at the beginning. In 2012, ICRAF launched the Landscape Portal, an interactive open-source website to allow users to get easy access to big data sets and select data to create maps. These big data sets were collected under the Sentinel Landscapes project of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA).

ICRAF researchers are constantly striving to make their research data accessible and valuable to decision-makers, whether in communities or at national and global levels. This is how the idea of SHARED, short for Stakeholder Approach to Risk Informed and Evidence Based Decision Making, emerged.

SHARED operates in Kenya through a partnership between the Turkana County Government, the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), UNICEF Kenya and ICRAF.

In 2010, the new Kenyan constitution devolved power to county governments and each county developed a County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP). The Turkana Government approached ICRAF and UNICEF and asked them for help in designing tools for planning and budgeting in order to enhance people’s resilience and reduce the incidence of emergencies. Funding from USAID made the Turkana SHARED project possible.

Setting SHARED up

At first, it was necessary to bring together all of the existing data from local and national sources, which came in different forms such as handwritten or typewritten reports, photographs or survey results. The data had to be sorted and digitized so that they then could be visualized spatially.

UNICEF Kenya brought in their experience in community engagement and data management to track progress on key socioeconomic indicators including education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation. The NDMA also provided information from their regular drought monitoring of county sentinel sites.

A major component of the work was the development of a spatial dashboard to house all the data and allow decision-makers to interact with and query the data. The design of the platform took place using a collaborative process of capacity development with the Turkana County Government.

This means that key staff at the government’s Finance and Planning Unit and other county executives had to be trained, for example in three workshops.

“They learned how to interpret spatial evidence to prioritize budget allocations, based on actual need,” says ICRAF’s Geoinformatics Senior Scientist, Tor-Gunnar Vagen, who has led the technical development of the spatial dashboard. “We call it the resilience diagnostic toolbox.”

In the first phase of development, the SHARED Turkana dashboard shows data for different sectors such as education, nutrition, sanitation, irrigation, security, or land health.

Vagen tells us that the tool allows the government to see for example every single school in its county with trends of teacher-student ratios and enrolment of boys and girls.

“It also shows all the security incidents in the county in a given year and where the hot spots were. This could be violence, protests or cattle rustling.”

land-health-turkanaFor land health, the system is so advanced that one can click on a map, and it zooms into the location and runs different types of analyses. The map is complemented by colored boxes – like a traffic light – with red indicating a risk in that zone such as high pH, low carbon or high erosion (see screenshot).

Surprising results on HIV/AIDS

“This is where we have interaction with the county and how we try to support the county with science,” Vagen says and gives the example of the HIV/AIDS data.

“The map shows that the highest number of health facilities is in central Turkana, but the number of children with HIV/AIDS there is quite low. In the western part of the county, however, close the border with Sudan where a lot of refugees are coming through, the HIV prevalence is very high.”

So you can look at where children with HIV/AIDS get actual care in Turkana and this is not where the prevalence is high. With better data, the government and key development partners such as UNICEF can better target their interventions.”

“In Kenya almost 8 out of 10 children are subjected to deprivation in at least one of the key pillars of child well-being such as access to water, good nutrition, education, health or access to social services,” says Ousmane Niang, Chief of Social Policy of UNICEF Kenya.

“For the government and its partners in Turkana County, it is absolutely important to easily access real-time data and evidence for informed decision- making. Therefore SHARED will be a milestone in supporting the county in planning, budgeting and strengthening service delivery,” he adds.

“Partnerships and collaborations such as SHARED are the key to delivering impactful results for adolescent, children and youth.”

Taking SHARED to the next level

A joint proposal for the second phase of work is currently under review at USAID. “The idea is that we will advance the capacity to interpret and manage in the county,” says Vagen.

“In the future, it will be the county’s data, managed in their knowledge management center so that the platform can be updated, interpreted, and evidence can be shared to support decisions.”

The SHARED team would like the platform to eventually act as an early warning system for hazards and to track epidemics. In order to function like that, it will need to have an SMS-based reporting system that will more rapidly connect community experiences with county government decisions. When it is finalized, the dashboard will deliver data in real time and be able to update itself.


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