Picture2How can a country tackle assessing forest degradation if it doesn’t have historical field data? Enter SEPAL (System for Earth Observation Data Access, Processing and Analysis for Land Monitoring), a powerful, user-friendly, cloud-based computing platform for big data processing.

SEPAL, an FAO and Norway collaboration, provides free access to Earth observation data and allows countries to overcome processing issues related to poor Internet connections or low computing power. One of the modules in SEPAL is Break detection For Additive Seasonal Trends (BFAST), an algorithm that identifies the date and location of change using a time series of historical satellite imagery. Using BFAST, countries are able to better monitor changes in their forests (e.g. deforestation and near real-time alerts) using freely available satellite images (e.g. Landsat).

SEPAL’s role in assessing forest degradation was emphasized during the International Conference “Halting Deforestation and Increasing Forest Area – from Aspiration to Action” that took place at FAO Headquarters in Rome on 20-22 February 2018. Erik Lindquist, who presented SEPAL during the session on “Innovative technologies for land use monitoring,” said:

As changing land use is an important driver of deforestation, predicting and monitoring these changes is critical to understanding and halting negative changes including deforestation and forest degradation. SEPAL has been already used in many UN-REDD partner countries such as Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Zambia and it is ready to help even more countries that are committed to tackling climate change effectively.”

Under the current World Bank supported MRV project (“Implementation of a national forest monitoring and MRV system for REDD+ readiness in Ethiopia”), the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has requested FAO to assist with forest degradation assessment in order to better understand carbon emissions from forest degradation. Under the same project, FAO assisted GoE in producing its first Forest Reference Level in 2016. The FRL included emissions from deforestation, but not forest degradation because of a lack of available data. In the FRL, Ethiopia states its intention to gradually account for forest degradation following a stepwise approach, by developing a robust methodology by scaling up successful local studies to the national scale for a cost-effective accounting mechanism. Assessing forest degradation depends on better and more cost-effective technologies to allow for more consistent measuring and monitoring of emissions from this activity.

Picture1 ethiopiaTowards this effort, FAO has a partnership with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) to refine its methodology for assessing and monitoring forest degradation through the SEPAL project. The Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MEFCC) in Ethiopia supported by FAO is testing small study areas in Ethiopia for the WUR approaches’ feasibility and accuracy to quantify forest degradation. Furthermore, in November 2017, FAO led a joint technical training on forest degradation for the MRV teams in Ethiopia and Uganda, providing an excellent opportunity for south-south exchange and experience sharing using BFAST within the SEPAL platform. In collaboration with GIZ, FAO and MEFCC are testing the approach in Menagesha-Suba National Forest by combining field data using low-cost tools to measure tree canopy cover and spatial outputs from BFAST to determine where and when forest degradation is occurring. Maps of degradation hotspots can inform forest management plans in the national forest and the methodology will be implemented at the national scale.