In the tiny village of Sabue, Georgia, people had been concerned about the activities of a logging company in the woods close to their homes for years, but there was not much they could do—the company had been legally permitted to cut trees in this area. In addition to increased risks of erosion and landslides, the presence of the company was polluting the village’s main water supply and damaging cultural infrastructures along the road used by timber trucks.
The protection of Georgian forests is a priority for both national authorities and inhabitants who rely heavily on their products and services. However, with more than 40 per cent of the country’s land covered with trees, accounting for more than 2.7 million hectares, it is not always easy to keep track of all the activities happening in forested areas and to make sure that these do not cause harm to the environment.
Forests worldwide provide a multitude of services, including protection against natural hazards and habitat for plants and animals, as well as contributing to carbon storage. Despite their recognized role in sustaining livelihoods and ecosystems, millions of hectares of forest continue to be lost or degraded each year, mostly due to unsustainable land use, infrastructural development or natural resource extraction.
As part of its ambition to reduce fragmentation and land degradation while taking better and more sustainable advantage of its forests, the Georgian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture joined forces with the Global Environment Facility, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Resources Institute to develop a new online tool, the Forest and Land Use Atlas of Georgia.
The Atlas combines the global satellite data of the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch with Georgia’s national forest data, thus providing decision makers and society with accurate information and tools to support the planning, execution and monitoring of activities taking place in the forestry and land use sectors.
“In many cases, the projects are being developed without knowing that this or that place is part of the protected areas system, or somehow a restricted zone,” says Kakha Artsivadze, biodiversity expert at the Center for Biodiversity Conservation and Research. “Therefore, the Atlas is crucial to make correct spatial planning for decision makers, business, private companies, etc.”
The Atlas analyzes Georgia’s land cover dynamics, including the total tree cover loss and gain, protected areas, biodiversity, fire alerts, hazard risks and even timber and mining licenses—all through a user-friendly interface with charts and maps, making it easier to observe forest conditions across Georgia.
“The Atlas gives you the widest opportunities, and lots of data that you can play with. Initially, it was intended for the ministry and government. But the platform proved to be so flexible and intuitive that it is widely used by students, non-governmental organizations, scientists, tourists—just ordinary people who can get the information online”, says Karlo Amirgulashvili, Head of the Biodiversity and Forestry Department at the Georgian Ministry of Environment and Agriculture.
Not only has the improved accuracy of maps and data offered by the Atlas revolutionized forestry work in Georgia, helping projects to move forward and saving time and human resources, but it has also empowered local communities to protect their precious forests.
“It is exactly this broad reach from local resource use to national and international policymaking based on solid scientific information that drives the transformational change we need to safeguard our environmental resources,” explains Bruno Pozzi, Director of UNEP’s Europe Office. “These results are very encouraging and fully in line with UNEP’s mandate to establish international standards for environmental policy.”
Back in Sabue, the Forest and Land Use Atlas of Georgia eventually allowed the local community to spot that the permit had been wrongly assigned to a high-hazard zone, and evict the logging company.
The Atlas also encouraged non-governmental organizations to take part in information-gathering projects aimed at facilitating the sustainable use of forest resources, as was the case for the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation and Research, which used drones to map forest habitats and evaluate non-timber resources. Their results were then uploaded to the Atlas, further improving its accuracy and scope of analysis. By overlaying the available data, the national non-governmental organization even discovered four previously unknown forest habitats.
Collected remotely from the sky, this wealth of data facilitates a closer relationship on the ground between the Georgian people and their environment. It also strengthens accountability for stakeholders wishing to initiate a project affecting the country’s forests. The new technology opens up a new path towards sustainability, and with it, unprecedented opportunities to take care of national environmental treasures.
The Global Forest Watch 2.0 project is a three-year initiative piloting a global near-real-time forest monitoring and deforestation alert system to support forest conservation, law enforcement and policy development. The project is supported by the Global Environment Facility, and implemented by UNEP with the coordination of the World Resources Institute, the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture of Georgia, and Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forest.
Global Forest Watch 2.0 is just one of more that 80 projects UNEP has implemented with the backing of the Global Environment Facility in support of the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification and other efforts to bring a halt to the threat of land degradation globally. Focusing on the theme “Restore Land to Sustain Life”, the 14th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification is taking place in Delhi, India from September 2 to 14 2019.
For more information on the Global Forest Watch 2.0 project and UNEP’s work in addressing land degradation, please contact johan.robinson[at]un.org.