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FORESTS: New mapping programs show the 'big picture' of vanishing trees (Climate Wire)

January 5, 2012

Senior Fellow David Wheeler was interviewed for a Climate Wire article on deforestation and FORMA.

From the Article:

Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia's global share of deforestation collectively rose by 10.8 percent in the past five years, while Brazil's portion fell by an almost equivalent amount -- 11.2 percentage points -- according to a new system that updates patterns for forest clearing every 30 days.

Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA), an initiative under the Center for Global Development, has released the first batch of data for 27 countries. Overall, clearing has dropped by approximately 42 percent since 2005. But individual countries' performance are a mixed bag: Rates declined in 12 countries, increased in 14 and remained constant in one -- the Central African Republic.

"We are really focused on giving people the big picture," said David Wheeler, co-author of the report and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Development. A former economist with the World Bank, Wheeler was motivated to create FORMA out of frustration with the slow turnaround of information on clearing rates.

"An analysis of what's going on may take years to undertake," he said. "To a very large degree, in many countries they've been flying blind."

Myanmar, Peru rising

The analysis is the first publication of results from FORMA, which collected satellite images from NASA's MODIS sensor to update forest clearing information onto online maps. In FORMA's maps, an individual plot of land will register a certain color -- varying from yellow to orange to bright red -- according to the probability that trees have been cleared on the ground. The report tracks satellite image observations from December 2005 to August of last year.

Myanmar, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Burundi and the Republic of the Congo have all seen significantly increasing rates of deforestation. Brazil, Indonesia, Paraguay and Bolivia experienced relative declines in the past five years.

"Hot spots," areas that may not register a high absolute rate of clearing, but whose expansion is quickly accelerating, are usually confined to sub-national boundaries -- provinces, states and smaller areas under the national umbrella, said Wheeler.

Both the global economic downturn and a rise from growing economies like China have contributed to patterns, said Wheeler.

A hunger for palm oil and teak wood is likely responsible for rising rates in Malaysia and Myanmar, said Rolf Skar, senior forest campaigner with Greenpeace. "Growing demand for wood, palm oil is skyrocketing, will continue to skyrocket, will push up deforestation rates in Burma [Myanmar]," he said.

Some of the findings are counterintuitive. Peru and Bolivia, two neighboring countries with similar topographies, have opposite trends in the rate of forest change. Peru, a country with nearly double the per capita gross domestic product of its neighbor, is seeing an upward increase in deforestation, while Bolivia is experiencing a steady downturn.
This is likely tied to the rise in gold panning in Peru, driven by record gold prices on the international market, said Skar.

Implications for REDD+

Preliminar findings in a related study also uncovered trends in how clearing is distributed. In Indonesia, for example, the distribution is highly concentrated on top, said Dan Hammer, a co-author of the report and research fellow at the World Resources Institute -- the top 1 percent of the largest clusters of deforestation accounts for 30 percent of total aggregate clearing.

"It definitely narrows the field in terms of how many actors you have to engage," he said.

With the exception of Brazil, whose national space agency is considered a leader in the field of tracking deforestation, there's been very little accurate information on global deforestation rates.

While rates and trends may be more telling on the regional level, national report cards have become increasingly important in climate change's political sphere. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a strategy that compensates nations to not clear forests, made important steps in developing a framework at last month's U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa.

A month-to-month update of data would clarify how well countries perform for REDD+, said Wheeler. "It's very hard to have a program with incentives if it takes two to three years to find out what's going on."

"This is an absolutely novel and unique thing," said Kenneth Chomitz, senior adviser for the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group. "We've known it's a big problem; we haven't had any comprehensive real-time measures."