Author Archives: jolie

Revolutionary Google-backed system unlocks power of ‘big data’ to save forests

Global Forest Watch showing tree height and forest loss and gain between 2000 and 2012. 

World Resources Institute (WRI) today announced the release of a tool that promises to revolutionize forest monitoring. 

The platform, called Global Forest Watch and developed over several years with more than 40 partners, draws from a rich array of “big data” related to the word’s forests and translates it into interactive maps and charts that reveal trends in deforestation, forest recovery, and industrial forestry expansion. Global Forest Watch is the first tool to monitors global forests on a monthly basis, allowing authorities and conservationists to potentially take action against deforestation as it is occurring. 

“Businesses, governments and communities desperately want better information about forests. Now, they have it,” said Andrew Steer, WRI President and CEO, in a statement. “Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.”  

Global Forest Watch leverages Google’s computing cloud to make sense of staggering amounts of NASA satellite data, which in the past would have taken years to process, according to Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager at Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine, who worked with a team of researchers led by University of Maryland scientist Matt Hansen to develop the high resolution dataset of forest cover and change that underpins the system. 

We analyzed… almost 700,000 Landsat images,” Moore said. “It was a total of 20 terra-pixels of Landsat data and to do that we applied one million CPU hours on 10,000 computers in parallel in order to run Dr. Hansen’s models to characterize forest cover and change. It would have taken a single computer 15 years to perform this analysis that we completed in a matter of days using the Google Earth Engine technology.” 

The result is a high resolution map that reveals annual change in forest cover since 2000. Global Forest Watch integrates data from other sources to generate near-real time alerts akin to the system Brazil has used to help reduce deforestation by nearly 80 percent since 2004. Users — whether they be government authorities, conservationists, members of traditional forest communities, activists, or armchair environmentalists — can set up personalized alerts to generate emails whenever there are signs of deforestation in an area, including municipalities, national parks, or zones defined by the user drawing shapes on a map. 

“Technical users can download the data for their own analysis,” said Nigel Sizer, director of the Global Forest Project. “But a cool function for everyone is the alert system, which automatically sends you alerts telling you when there is forest cover change in the area you specify.” 

Forest cover loss and oil palm expansion in Riau Province near Tesso Nilo Protected Area in Indonesia. 

Global Forest Watch however goes well beyond displaying forest cover and change data. In several countries, WRI has persuaded governments to release spatial data on forestry concessions, including oil palm, timber, and pulp and paper plantations in Indonesia, a country which until now has been notorious for lack of transparency in its forestry sector. Global Forest Watch lists each concession in the country, including the owner and permit information. That data can be used as a layer to see how fast oil palm plantations have expanded at the expense of natural forests and even pinpoint cases where illegal conversion has occurred within protected areas. For example, the map shows oil palm development in two nature reserves — Gunung Nuit Penrisen and Gunung Raya Pasi — in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan. Global Forest Watch also has extensive concession data for Congo Basin countries, Liberia, and Colombia. Further data will be added as it is becomes available. 

Logging concessions in Liberia 

The concession data could prove especially useful to companies who have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. 

“It’s going to help our suppliers demonstrate that they are indeed also free of deforestation,” said Duncan Pollard of Nestle, which launched a zero deforestation policy for palm oil sourcing in 2010. “And it’s going to help us monitor and report on the progress that we make on to our global commitment.” 

“Deforestation poses a material risk to businesses that rely on forest-linked crops. Exposure to that risk has the potential to undermine the future of businesses,” added Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, in a statement. “As we strive to increase the visibility of where the ingredients for our products come from, the launch of Global Forest Watch – a fantastic, innovative tool – will provide the information we urgently need to make the right decisions, fostering transparency, enforcing accountability, and facilitating partnerships.” 

Global Forest Watch profile for Bolivia 

WRI says the tool, which is web-based and usable on virtually any Internet-capable device, will also help governments better manage forests and conservation areas. 

“Many governments like Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, welcome Global Forest Watch because it can help them design smarter policies, enforce forest laws, detect illegal forest clearing, manage forests more sustainably, and achieve conservation and climate goals,” the group said. 

Heru Prasetyo, Head of Indonesia’s REDD+ Agency, added that the tool will be a boon to his new agency, which is tasked with shifting the country away from a deforestation-as-usual approach to forest management. 

“The ability to better monitor our forests and have up-to-date information to make decisions are critical,” he said in a statement. “I commend the Global Forest Watch initiative, will continue to support it, and expect that it will be an effective tool for the world and each nation as we leave neglect and ignorance in the past.” 

The ignorance will continue to diminish with Global Forest Watch’s flexibility to integrate new data sources, which makes it well-positioned to benefit from new satellites slated for launch in coming years. 

“It’s possible for the first time to have this near-real time update of the world’s forests,” said Google’s Moore. “That has never existed before. It’s quite unprecedented.” 

“But again there are some really promising new satellites scheduled to launch that we think will improve the timeliness and the resolution of this data.” 

Global Forest Watch reveals massive forest loss in Paraguay over the past 12 years 

Global Forest Watch also takes advantage of trends in user-generated content and crowd-sourcing to augment its offerings. Users can submit photos and their own reports to the system, potentially creating a global network of forest monitors who can help hold companies, governments, and NGO’s accountable for destroying or failing to preserve forests. Global Forest Watch is also partnering with media outlets to populate its maps with news articles on forests. The tool itself has the potential to generate virtually a limitless supply of news stories, boosting awareness around forest issues. 

“We now have the possibility of doing something that would have been absolutely unheard of ten years ago which is near-real time data delivered to everybody who has a laptop computer or smart phone,” said Andrew Steer, the President and CEO of the World Resources Institute. “So when the president of Indonesia passed good laws on forests it was very difficult for him to know what was going on in real time in Kalimantan. Now he can.” 

Global Forest Watch showing tree height and forest loss and gain between 2000 and 2012. 

Written by Rhett A. Butler

Indonesia rejects, delays 1.3m ha of concessions due to moratorium

Background image courtesy of Bing Maps. 

The Indonesian government has rejected nearly 932,000 hectares (2.3 million acres) of oil palm, timber, and logging concessions due to its moratorium on new permits across millions of hectares of peatlands and rainforests, reports Mongabay-Indonesia.

According to data released by Indonesia’s new REDD+ Task Force and the Ministry of Forestry, permits for an additional 409,000 hectares (1 million acres) are held up pending review. 

Of the permits denied under the enforcement of the country’s moratorium, 25 percent of the area belonged to a single company — PT Usaha Tani Lestari — operating in Nabire in Indonesian New Guinea. Sulawesi accounted for half the area of rejected permits. 

Just under half the area of rejected permits was off-limits under the moratorium, but because companies applied for single operating units that included moratorium areas, their concessions were denied in whole. 

Permits covering 255,000 hectares in Papua and 154,000 ha in North Kalimantan, Indonesia’s newest province, were delayed. 

The moratorium is the centerpiece of the Indonesian government’s push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, more than 80 percent of which result from deforestation and degradation of carbon-dense peatlands. The moratorium was signed after Norway pledged a billion dollars toward Indonesia’s deforestation-reduction plan. Norway’s payment is contingent on Indonesia’s success in reducing forest loss. 

The moratorium, which put some 14.5 million hectares of previously unprotected forests off-limits to conversion, was fiercely opposed by interests in the forestry sector, especially Indonesia’s powerful palm oil industry. Lobbying by plantation and logging companies led to the moratorium being heavily watered down from what was originally envisioned by Norway. The moratorium includes significant carve-outs for mining and agro-industrial projects. It also exempts concessions granted prior to May 2011, when the moratorium went into effect. 

Nonetheless, the moratorium represents an important development in efforts to protect Indonesia’s forests which have in recent decades suffered from large-scale conversion for oil palm estates, timber plantations, and industrial agriculture. The country lost nearly half of its forest cover since 1950. 

Peatland plantations drive steep GHG emissions in Indonesia’s Riau Province

Oil palm and cleared forest in Riau. Photo taken by Rhett A. Butler in February 2014. 

Versatile is the best way to describe the reddish brown fruit born from oil palm trees. Both the flesh and seed of the fruit is used in many applications including cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. In addition, the fruit is composed of 50 percent oil, making it a highly efficient product that requires less land than other oil producing crops. 

Palm oil is cultivated in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and South America. However, 85 percent of global production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. The rural regions of these countries strongly benefit from a commodity that is in high demand as a raw material or as an edible ingredient. 

Indonesia produced 9 million tons of palm oil in 2011, making it the world’s largest producer. The country aims to double production over the next decade by expanding production from its tropical forests to peatlands, located closer to coastlines. The impact of this shift is expected to be substantial, as shown by recent research that assessed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from oil palm expansion in Riau Province, on the island of Sumatra. 

Unlike other scientists’ research into GHG emissions from palm oil, graduate researchers Fatwa Ramdani and Masteru Hino of Tohoku University in Japan, looked into emissions on a provincial scale as opposed to an Indonesia-wide scale. They found that palm oil expansion in Riau resulted in an average of 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year from 2000 and 2012. Nearly 70 percent of the emissions resulted from plantations on peat soils. 

Study area and oil palm development in Riau. Courtesy of the authors. 

In contrast, 60 percent GHG emissions from plantations in the 1990’s resulted from conversion of forests. The results indicate that carbon-dense peatlands have been increasingly targeted by the palm oil industry in Riau, raising further questions about the industry’s sustainability. 

“High demand for oil palm and little government management is driving plantation expansion at an unsustainable rate,” said Ramdani. “Indonesia needs to explore sustainable development of oil palm plantations to protect biodiversity, its local economies and to reduce GHG.” 

Oil palm plantation on drained peatlands in Riau in February 2014. Photo by Rhett A. Butler. 

The importance of peatlands

While both tropical forests and peatlands provide many important ecosystem services such as a refuge for biodiversity, the provision of clean air and water, and carbon sequestration, peatlands are the undisputed champion of carbon storage. These systems are wet, damp, and muddy, so any dead vegetation is slow to decompose. Thus, carbon taken from the atmosphere by plants is stored indefinitely in the tissues of living and dead materials. But when these systems are disturbed or altered, the stored carbon is released. 

And indeed Riau’s peatlands are being disturbed on a massive scale-between 2000-2012, 137 multinational and two public companies occupied Riau. Overall natural forest cover plunged in the province from 63 percent in the early 1990’s to 22 percent in 2012. 

Oil palm development on peatlands. Courtesy of the authors. 

Ramdani explained why, despite poorer nutrient levels compared to tropical forests, conversion of peatlands is growing in Riau. 

“Oil palm trees require a lot of water, and peatlands are very flat, making them easier to irrigate,” the author told Mongabay.com, adding that the benefits to business are not based purely on physical practicalities. “Unlike other systems, peatlands generally receive little to no protection from government moratoriums.” Thus, peatlands are prime exploitable areas for companies looking to occupy and convert large tracts of land into plantations. 

However there are emerging signs that Riau’s peatlands may soon be better protected. Institutions like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are beginning to strengthen standards for production, while two palm oil giants-Wilmar and Gold-Agri Resouces-have recently committed to avoiding conversion of peatlands for new plantations. But ultimately only consumer demand for more sustainable palm oil will ensure that Riau’s peatlands will be around to sequester carbon and provide wildlife habitat in the future. 

Ramdani explained why, despite poorer nutrient levels compared to tropical forests, conversion of peatlands is growing in Riau. 

“Oil palm trees require a lot of water, and peatlands are very flat, making them easier to irrigate,” the author told Mongabay.com, adding that the benefits to business are not based purely on physical practicalities. “Unlike other systems, peatlands generally receive little to no protection from government moratoriums.” Thus, peatlands are prime exploitable areas for companies looking to occupy and convert large tracts of land into plantations. 

However there are emerging signs that Riau’s peatlands may soon be better protected. Institutions like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are beginning to strengthen standards for production, while two palm oil giants-Wilmar and Gold-Agri Resouces-have recently committed to avoiding conversion of peatlands for new plantations. But ultimately only consumer demand for more sustainable palm oil will ensure that Riau’s peatlands will be around to sequester carbon and provide wildlife habitat in the future. 

Written by Michael Buelna

Google forest data now available for download

Forest cover data for Peninsular Malaysia from the dataset.

The data underlies the much-publicized global forest map released last year. Until now, users could browse the map to view historical forest cover loss and gain, but weren’t able to download the raw data. 

The dataset includes tree canopy cover for 2000 and 2012, forest cover loss and gain for 2000-2012, and year of gross forest loss on a global scale. 

While the dataset is available in a format that will most likely be used by the technically savvy, it will allow users to create derivative maps, visualizations, and aggregations. For example, a government agency could develop annual forest loss estimates at a national or sub-national level, while a conservationist could look at forest recovery in a newly protected area. 

The data can also be analyzed using Google Earth Engine. 

Forest map showing deforestation in the Chaco ecosystem 

The dataset is based on analysis of 654,178 NASA Landsat images. The paper describing the research was published November 2013 in the journal Science. It concluded that the world lost some 2.3 million hectares of forest – and gained 800,000 square kilometers – between 2000 and 2012. 

Matthew Hansen, a University of Maryland geographer who led the study, remarked on the power of the data when the research was published last year. 

“People will use these data in ways we can’t even imagine today,” he said. “Brazil had used Landsat data to document its deforestation trends and to inform policy and they also shared their data publicly. But such data has not been widely available for other parts of the world. Our global mapping of forest cover lifts the veil-revealing what’s happening on the ground in places people could only conjecture about before.”