Forest Monitoring: What Can World Bank (& Others) Do to Improve?

…to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity in a sustainable manner[,] thoughtful management of the world’s remaining forests and trees is critical. [1]
Foreword, Forest Action Plan, The World Bank (2016)

Despite good intentions in many quarters, deforestation rates continue unabated.[2] Most ( 73%) is driven by agricultural expansion (including commodities, 40%); another 17% by mining and infrastructure.[3] In an effort to decouple deforestation from development, the World Bank Group (WBG) adopted the Forest Action Plan (FAP) in 2016 to increase the Bank’s direct support for forest programs and reduce risks to forests from development projects in all sectors. The WBG aims to promote sustainable forest management in all development projects by requiring borrowers to recognize when projects may pose risks to forests and identify ways to monitor forest impacts.

Good News: A growing suite of forest monitoring tools

The WBG, along with other multilaterals, is now grappling with how to monitor and minimize forest impacts from projects it funds. There’s good news: aided by recent advances in technology and open data initiatives, technology companies, researchers, and conservation practitioners have developed a suite of forest monitoring tools that can monitor changes in landscape condition and alert users to sudden ecosystem changes or emerging trends.

There exist dozens of “top-down,” or satellite-based, forest monitoring tools that operate at multiple scales, from the local to global. Although most global tools are operated by government agencies and others in the United States and European Union, more national tools operated by developing countries are emerging.

There are also about a dozen free and open source mobile applications designed specifically for “bottom-up” monitoring to aid forest patrolling and community-based monitoring. Innovative approaches to forest monitoring combine top-down and bottom-up approaches to achieve objectives such as improving community engagement; improving accuracy of ecosystem change measures; or knowing about landscapes changes closer to real-time.

And a wide range of applications

 The diverse set of forest monitoring tools are used for a range of applications and audiences.  In fact, fitting the tool to the application is key for choosing a forest monitoring tool. There are three general applications of forest monitoring tools:

  1. informing policy and practice;
  2. enabling rapid response; and
  3. increasing public awareness[4].

A tool to inform policy and best practices provides accurate information, but often does so infrequently, or with a significant delay. These tools include annual forest cover and change estimates[5] hosted by Global Forest Watch, and National Forest Monitoring systems for REDD Measurement Reporting and Verification (MRV), which accurately quantify forest cover and change to report carbon emissions to inform national climate and land use policies.  

An example of a rapid response system is Conservation International’s Firecast system which sends alerts about fires detected by coarse resolution satellites in near real-time to sub-national institutions and communities for enhanced fire management.

An example of a tool to increase public awareness is the Monitoring the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which leverages a public platform to connect forest change to specific drivers in the Amazon and elevates this information to conservation practitioners, the media, and the general public.  These three categories of forest monitoring tool applications highlight the trade-offs between accuracy and timeliness and how tools are purposely designed for specific applications and targeted users.

How are forest monitoring tools being applied to WBG Funded Projects?

An analysis of WBG projects with expected forest impacts implemented since 2015 in six focal countries[6] found that while forest monitoring tools were applied to about three-quarters of the forestry sector projects, these tools were underutilized to monitor and mitigate forest impacts from non-forestry projects (e.g. agriculture, energy, and infrastructure). One non-forestry project did mention monitoring was implemented through the national forest monitoring system for REDD Measurement Reporting and Verification. It was unclear how that particular monitoring application, optimized for accurate measures of deforestation after one or two years after the deforestation already occurred, fit the monitoring needs of the project.

The most obvious explanation is that forest monitoring to reduce forest impacts is not a sufficient priority in non-forestry projects for project managers (Task Team Leaders, or TTLs, in WBG parlance) to include it or to choose the correct tool to effectively reduce forest impacts.  This is a potentially costly oversight given the critical role of forests in sustainable development, as highlighted in the FAP and other Bank documents,[7] and deserves to be addressed by WBG Directors and senior management.   

That said, sparse use of forest monitoring tools may reflect practical issues too:  developing project-specific tools is expensive, navigating the suite of current tools is daunting, and training stakeholders to use tools is time-consuming and sometimes costly. 

Recommendations for improving forest monitoring   

To address these, following are recommendations for the WBG and other multilateral funding agencies to increase the use of forest monitoring tools to meet sustainability goals:

  1. Improve networks of knowledge sharing for forest monitoring tools so projects can capitalize on the wealth of free tools that do exist.
  2. Require proposers to present a theory of change of how a proposed forest monitoring tool will fit the application. Is the application intended to inform policy and practice, enable rapid response, or increase public awareness?
  3. Encourage proposers to use or build off existing tools from previous WBG investments to avoid wasting resources on reinventing tools.
  4. Require proposers to allocate sufficient resources for repeated capacity building and engagement with key decision makers to increase tool use.
  5. Encourage tool development if
  • Replicating a tool will help overcome a barrier to uptake (i.e. replicating a global tool by a national or subnational entity to have ownership over the tool and national branding that will increase in-count