Q&A with Frances Seymour on Global Forest Watch

February 24, 2014

This is a joint post with Frances Seymour.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) is an online monitoring and alert system that aims to empower people to better manage forests. GFW uses satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to offer timely, reliable information about forests so that governments, businesses and communities can halt forest loss. The World Resources Institute (WRI) launched GFW last week, to wide acclaim. 

CGD is among the GFW core partners, having provided the Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) platform that is at the heart of GF­­­W’s tropical forest alerts system. CGD researchers continue to work with WRI on forest issues and will be using GFW data in a forthcoming report, Why Forests? Why Now?, as part of our Tropical Forests for Climate and Development initiative, which is led by CGD senior fellow Frances Seymour, the former director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia.

Frances was in Indonesia last week during the GFW launch or would likely have been one of the keynote speakers. I served as moderator for a panel on the development and business implications of GFW, so upon Frances’s return I was eager to hear her views on the whether or not GFW will have a significant role in slowing the deforestation that undermines development and exacerbates climate change. (For more on how GFW works, and why it matters, see also Jonah Busch’s The Data Revolution Hits Forests.)

Q: During the six years you served as the director general of CIFOR, you consistently pushed to strengthen ties between science and tropical forest policy. How would that task have been different if Global Forest Watch had been available during that time?

A: It would have made a big difference. Forest researchers at CIFOR and elsewhere have spent a lot of time debating among themselves, with activists, and with government officials the rates of deforestation in different countries at different times, and the relative importance of the various causes of forest loss.  Is the deforestation rate increasing or decreasing?  Is it driven primarily by small farmers or large corporations?  Is the land cover change temporary or permanent?  GFW won’t end those debates, but it will unleash a new generation of research that can provide better answers to those questions.  From now on, the debates will be much better informed, and everyone will have access to the same data as a basis for discussion.

Q: David Wheeler told me that Indonesian leaders had early access to the results from FORMA, and were eager to use the information in their efforts to combat deforestation. Do you expect that efforts to slow deforestation will be stronger now that the even better information is readily available to everybody for free?

A: Yes.  Brazil’s experience in dramatically reducing its deforestation rate (described in Jonah Busch’s blog) suggests that greater transparency is key to generating political will for action, as well as to enabling the timely targeting of law enforcement efforts when illegal forest loss is detected.  FORMA basically allows the rest of the world access to the tool that Brazil pioneered a decade ago. 

Under President Yudhoyono, Indonesia has begun the difficult process of addressing the many drivers of deforestation, including imposition of a moratorium on new forest concessions in primary forests and peatlands, improving spatial planning, and recognizing customary rights over forest lands.  The President recently established a new national REDD+ Agency to coordinate these efforts, and better spatial information is critical to all of them. 

With a Presidential election scheduled for later this year, increased access to information about what’s happening in the nation’s forests will also play a critical role in maintaining public awareness of the problem, so that the new administration will remain focused on the REDD+ agenda.

Q: You wrote recently that an announcement by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, that it will eliminate deforestation from its supply chain is A Big Deal for Tropical Forests.  Will GFW make it easier for governments and citizens to monitor such commitments?

A:  Absolutely.  But it’s not just governments and citizens who are interested: the consumer-facing manufacturers and retailers that buy palm oil from Wilmar – companies such as Unilever and Nestle -- will also be watching, as it is their brands that are at risk.  But important pieces of the puzzle are still missing.  In order to trace palm oil and other commodities to their source at the plantation level, we need better official maps of concession boundaries.  And in order to ensure that clearing is not taking place without the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous and local communities, we need better maps of their territories as well.  Those are data layers that you can’t get from satellite imagery, and I know that GFW is working hard to include them as well.

Q: During the panel discussion at the GFW launch, a woman from Cameroon expressed concern that the new monitoring capabilities might be used to restrict the livelihood activities of people who live in and near the forests, even if they are not the main driver of deforestation. Do you share these concerns? What if any safeguards needed to ensure that this doesn’t happen?

A:  It’s definitely a legitimate concern.  Several years ago, CIFOR published a study showing that crackdowns on illegal logging tended to be directed at the little guy with the chain saw rather than the big guy with the bank account.  That’s why the use of anti-corruption or anti-money-laundering legislation to go after illegal land clearing is so elegant:  it’s naturally targeted to the “big guys” directing the organized crime that’s often behind deforestation.

Much opposition to REDD+ is motivated by concerns about the potential unintended negative consequences for people who depend on forests for their livelihoods.  As a result, a key focus of REDD+ international negotiations, national strategies, and donor-funded programs has been on safeguards:  how to ensure that local people share the benefits of efforts to reduce deforestation rather than risk harm to their rights and welfare.  Monitoring the use of new tools such as those provided by GFW has definitely got to be part of the program.

Q: One goal of the team you lead here at CGD is to increase the supply of performance-based funding from rich countries in the north to tropical countries to slow and eventually stop deforestation. Do you think that the availability of near-real time information on tropical deforestation will increase the willingness of rich countries and perhaps other funders to offer such payments?  

A: Yes, but the availability of near-real time information on forest clearing is probably more important to the governments of the tropical forest countries themselves, as it empowers them to target their efforts to reduce deforestation more effectively.  The higher-resolution annual estimates of the deforestation rate – also made available by GFW – will be of greater interest to rich country governments, because it removes uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of their investments.

A lot of energy has gone into designing efficient and effective systems for the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of GHG emission reductions expected to result from REDD+ initiatives.  The data made available by GFW provides an important new tool in service to that objective that will be useful to governments on both sides of the transaction.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.