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Digital Mapping Initiative Promises Better Rainforest Protection

A comprehensive online mapping effort organized by the Rainforest Foundation UK could serve as a powerful new tool for combating deforestation, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.   

As the ongoing climate summit in Durban again tries to resolve the challenges of implementing ‘reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’ (REDD), the new website MappingForRights.org provides, for the first time, accurate interactive maps showing the location of communities living in the forest, and how and where they are using forest resources.

By showing the areas of traditional forest use by indigenous communities, the maps potentially help to resolve one of the biggest challenges facing the concept of ‘REDD' – the problem of who actually owns or controls the forest, and who should be paid to protect it under any future climate protection scheme.

The site also includes the boundaries of strictly protected areas and agents of forest destruction, such as logging companies. The groundbreaking website, which is backed by a unique database of digital maps, builds on the results of many years work to map the existence of forest dwellers in the forests of the Congo Basin.

"Without a clear basis for understanding and recording who owns or occupies rainforests, REDD is very likely to fail, as it will be very hard to target forest protection payments to the right people,” says Simon Counsell, Director of the Rainforest Foundation. “MappingforRights.org shows that, whilst reliable mapping of forest use and ownership requires detailed on-the-ground work with communities, often under very difficult conditions, it is perfectly possible to do so at reasonable cost and scale. Scaling up community-based mapping of forests should be a top priority for the international community as a foundation for REDD in many countries."

The MappingForRights.org website and database allows access to hundreds of detailed digital maps, most of which have been prepared by forest communities themselves with training and support from the Rainforest Foundation and other organizations. Multi-media content such as photos, videos and music provides unique insights into the lives and livelihoods of the communities, while the maps show areas important for activities such as subsistence hunting, gathering, fishing and cultural activities.

The maps also show how these long-term inhabitants of the forest are threatened by logging, mining, industrial plantations and sometimes strict nature protection.

“Most of the rainforests of Africa are inhabited by local communities, some of which have been present in the forests for thousands of years, though mostly still lack any formal legal ownership rights,” Georges-Thierry Handja, Mapping Advisor for the Rainforest Foundation UK, says. "Although we have so far mapped only a small fraction of these communities, and so far only in Africa, the new MappingForRights website is already starting to show graphically how the areas of forest on which these communities depend have been handed out arbitrarily to logging companies, or put off-limits in National Parks or other strict conservation areas."

MappingForRights.org also potentially lays a basis to radically improve monitoring and enforcement of laws to protect forests. In the past, this has mostly relied on over-stretched, under-funded and sometimes ineffective government control agents, sometimes with the help of international independent forest monitors. A new phase of MappingForRights.org currently under preparation by the Rainforest Foundation UK will allow for members of the many thousands of communities spread throughout forest areas to relay geographically accurate ‘reports' or images straight into the map database, using Smartphones or GPS devices and locally available computer services, to provide ‘real-time' monitoring of, for example, occurrences of illegal logging, poaching or land-grabs.

"There is huge potential for development of real-time community-based forest monitoring across large areas, which could help build up detailed nationwide maps of threats and trends in forests,” Simon Counsell says.

The Rainforest Foundation UK's programme of mapping forest communities started in Cameroon in 2001, and has since expanded to include selected communities in Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon.  Some of the work has been undertaken with the collaboration of the authorities in the countries concerned, particularly with the relevant ministries in the Central African Republic, Gabon and Republic of Congo.

A short video explaining why community-based ‘participatory mapping' is important, and how it is undertaken, is available here.

Bart King is a PR consultant and principal of Cleantech Communications.


Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also an associate editor for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_kingGoogle+

[Read more about Bart King]


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