A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Trees: Measuring the impacts of Nepal’s community forestry programme through repeat imagery

Who better to take care of the world’s forests than the people who live in and directly depend on them?

Over the past 30 years, most developing countries have transitioned toward a decentralized system of forest management that gives local communities greater rights and responsibilities. Globally, land management rights for at least 10% (approximately 400 million hectares) of forested land are with the surrounding local communities. In Nepal, this has translated into a robust and innovative community forestry programme, which in just over thirty years has led to the formation of 17,685 community forest user groups – which manage 11.2% of the country’s 5.83 million hectares of forested land and provided benefits to over 2 million households.

Community forestry is recognized as a successful model for conserving forests, raising awareness among local people, and decentralizing forest governance practices. The success of the community forestry programme in Nepal has established the country as a model for promoting forest conservation by controlling deforestation and degradation. In fact, in 2014 it was selected as one of the four countries, most suitable for implementing a results-based payment system in line with the REDD+ scheme by the Forest Carbon Partnership of the World Bank. However, one of the challenges of the payment mechanism for changes in forest carbon stock is the identification of an accurate, reliable, and cost-efficient mechanism to monitor forest change.

The recent experiences with forest communities in adopting reliable and cost effective modern technologies to establish base lines and monitoring REDD+ based experimental sites in Nepal is presented. A suite of technologies ranging from repeat photography, low cost GPS and visual analysis of high resolution satellite based repeat images when used in conjunction with ground based monitoring systems have yielded better results to reach to communities. The evaluation and advocacy of such systems is tested considering the high penetration of mobile phone systems with cameras in rural sector and availability of open source Google based high resolution satellite data.

The promising performance of community forests in improving forest cover of Charikot, Dolakha District, Nepal and the exact picture of the development on ground through repeat photographs can be seen in fig-1. One of the major challenges in payment mechanisms is having scientifically demarcated area under study. The participatory approach for area demarcation using local and site knowledge, village maps and low cost GPS units have reduced in large degree of uncertainty and acceptance across diverse stakeholders. This has also enabled to make digital boundaries and undertake more analysis in integration with other related information (fig-2).

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 8.06.33 PMAnother way forward of community based monitoring is adopting very high resolution satellite images providing visually interpretable and measurable forest parameters by villagers. The repeat satellite images (IKONOS [2002] and GeoEye-1 [2009 and 2012] over selected community forests, Kayar Khola watershed, Chitwan District, Nepal (Fig-3) clearly demonstrates how one can visually interpret and quantify the number and sizes of tree crowns and associate impressive improvement of forest cover in the community forests. Such satellite based assessments were integrated with annual carbon measurements from community based permanent field plots to develop statistically robust up scaled wall to wall assessments adding value to plot based measurements. Overall forest augmentation throughout the three-year project showed the seriousness of local communities toward REDD+ and further improving forest conservation.

Entry 25 - Picture 3
Improvement in forest cover in selected community forests, Kayar Khola watershed, Chitwan District

In Nepal, and in other countries around the Globe, community involvement and active participation has the potential to improve the three E’s of REDD+ projects: effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. But community forest user groups alone can’t solve all the problems of forest governance. Awareness through education, the promotion of alternative energy resources, the provision of incentives to local communities, and, most importantly, local ownership for monitoring and managing forest areas are all necessary to increase forest cover. Although there are still steps needed to further improve and up-scale the remote sensing method for accurately monitoring forest change, through transforming as reliable and cost-effective tool, repeat photography and open source high resolution satellite images may soon translate increased forest cover into green income for local communities.


Written by: Hammad Gilani
Affiliation: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
Country: Nepal

This post is entry #25 in the #IUFRO2014 Blog Competition. The most popular entry will receive a certificate and 500 USD. The second and third most popular entries will receive a certificate and copy of the new book, “Forests and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development”.

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