National Forest Monitoring

Connecting Forests and People

Some takeaways from an inspiring forest and land monitoring conversation

“We are in the golden age of open data and remote sensing”, said FAO Forestry Officer Erik Lindquist opening the panel discussion at the Connecting Forests and People event organized by FAO's National Forest Monitoring team on October 20 in the framework of the Science and Innovation Forum 2022“Never before have we had so much information at our fingertips about the Earth's environment and surface to process and learn. The main challenge, though, is making better decisions based on the better data.” 

Experts from Planet, the European Space Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s SERVIR program shared their views on current and future data streams and their expected impacts on forests and forest-proximate peoples worldwide with more than 200 virtual and in-person attendees. The discussion followed a keynote presentation from Marte Sendstad, Senior Advisor of the Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), on the importance of data to meet major forest-related development objectives and satellite data. Marte provided examples of the use of satellite data, and specifically how NICFI Satellite Data Program is helping decision-makers reduce deforestation and forest degradation, as a part of UNFCCC reporting, as well as for detecting wildfire alerts, and prosecuting illegal deforestation activities.

Below, we summarize some of the highlights of the stimulating discussion.

Better data for better decisions

It all started more than 10 years ago when the United States of America and Europe made satellite imagery from their respective Landsat and Copernicus programs, freely available for all. “That made a big step forward in data, democracy and transparency and in the use of the data to support international policy”, said Focal Point for Land and Forest Services of the European Space Agency, Mr. Frank Martin Seifert. 

Thereafter, climate science-related decisions, including the Paris Agreement commitments and international reporting on forest cover change, have relied and continue to rely on inputs provided by systematic Earth observations for preparing long-term strategies, evidence-based planning, and policy development. “Many of us work in this space because we really believe you can't manage what you can't measure,” said Senior Director of Forests and Land Use of Planet Tara O'Shea. 

The potential for remotely-sensed Earth observation data is great, including contributions made by private sector data providers. Unlike the institutional and often political public programs, the nimbler private sector can innovate quickly and bring new sensors and data to market with different capabilities to augment the freely available public data. These new capabilities increase our understanding of the Earth’s surface, and when used to monitor forests, enable people who live in or depend on forests to make better decisions about the management of those resources. Combined, public and private sector data sources can help make environmental accounting relevant to even more stakeholders around the world. Examples such as the NICFI Satellite Data Program, a public-private data program funded by the Norwegian government, is a partnership between NICFI, Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), Planet and Airbus. This program provides high spatial and temporal resolution satellite images free of charge over the tropics and is being used by many, including Indigenous Peoples, to reduce tropical deforestation and mitigate climate change effects. 

“We [the private sector] are really keen to accelerate and support those sorts of public goods programs and public-private partnerships wherever we can, because we think it leads to fast and more comprehensive results”, stated Tara.

Some barriers to be defeated

Though data has never been more plentiful, barriers related to understanding and making the most efficient use of it still exist and need to be overcome. In this context, platforms like FAO’s SEPAL (System for Earth Observation Data Access, Processing and Analysis for Land Monitoring) are helping many to overcome the digital divide, providing access to cloud-based solutions that do not need local, large computing infrastructures, and making it easier for anyone, anywhere to find, process, and produce locally relevant results from an otherwise overwhelming amount of data.

The digital divide affects women and men differently. As a result, SERVIR is supporting women leaders as gender champions and integrating gender considerations into the planning of the services they are developing. “Women oftentimes use and receive information differently than men, and [are] using remote sensing and GIS to address issues impacting groups characterized by gender, ethnicity, age, and social status”, said Global Program Manager of the NASA's SERVIR Program, Daniel Irwin.

In addition, new initiatives like the Forest Data Partnership are aiming to reduce commodity-driven deforestation and restore forest landscapes by enabling all actors — local, government, producers, traders, and financiers — to access consistent, open-source, publicly available and validated geospatial data.

The “magic” dataset

“The amazing thing to see is what emerges when you put these types of datasets in the hands of those who have local or subject matter expertise”, said Tara.

The quantity and quality of available satellite data for land monitoring has been steadily increasing over the last 50 years. Today, whether it’s a park manager trying to detect and reduce illegal deforestation in Africa, Indigenous Peoples monitoring forest fires in Guatemala, or civil society and researchers monitoring illegal mining in the Amazon, the data exist to support all of these endeavors. The data, in some way, can be a catalyst enabling otherwise disparate communities around the world to connect, exchange good practices, share experiences and create recipes for impact for any number of important use cases.   

And as Frank Martin brilliantly concluded, “datasets enhance the available data, but the people using it to understand forests, they make the magic” 


Watch the video recording of the Connecting Forests and People event here.