Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Nigel Sizer
Forest clearing in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Nigel Sizer has worked on the forefront of global forest issues for decades. Currently, he is the Global Director of the World Resource Institute’s
(WRI) Forests Program, whose projects include the Global Forest Watch, the Forest Legality Alliance,
and the Global Restoration Initiative. These programs work with governments, businesses, and civil society with the aim of sustaining forests for generations to come.
On February 20, 2014, WRI launched the Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring and alert system to track deforestation throughout the world. Employing satellite technology, crowdsourcing and open data, the GFW mapping application guarantees access to information about forests that is both timely and reliable.
“Over the longer term, the next two to five years we expect GFW to undergo dramatic redesign to support much more country… greatly increasing our ability to detect smaller scale changes and report on those far more rapidly,” Sizer told mongabay.com. “In other words we aim to take GFW from near real time to virtually real time and to very high resolution, while maintaining extreme ease of use.”
Nigel attended the University of Cambridge and holds Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees in natural sciences and tropical forest ecology. He has lived and worked overseas for the majority of the past 25 years in Indonesia, Brazil and various parts of Africa. Prior to WRI, Nigel served as vice president for Asia with Rare; he also served as lead advisor on climate change and energy issues in Asia to former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He has worked with UNEP in Nairobi, and established The Nature Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific Forest Program.
“Politicians still don’t get it,” says Sizer, “too few business leaders are really engaged, and large scale corruption and patronage are still the norm when it comes to land and forests in many countries. Much more effort needs to be made to tackle the underlying governance and markets issues, and support alliances and coalitions locally and more broadly that are trying to do that. Radical transparency through Global Forest Watch is the contribution that my team is aiming to make to that process.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH NIGER SIZER
Mongabay:How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is the focus of your work?
Nigel Sizer. Photo courtesy of Niger Sizer.
I became interested while backpacking around Africa after I left high school, in 1984—30 years ago! I then studied ecology and went on to do a PhD in tropical forest ecology with three years of field work in the Brazilian Amazon, working out of Manaus on the famous Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems project, set up by Dr. Tom Lovejoy. When I completed my PhD WRI asked me to join the team and develop wider work on forest policy across the whole Amazon region, an offer I could not refuse, a dream job! I was with WRI for 8 years, with teams working in the Congo region, Russia, Canada, Indonesia, and beyond. I then joined TNC and headed out to Jakarta, and was based in Indonesia for most of the next ten years. I rejoined WRI 3 years ago.
At WRI now we have 3 major efforts: Global Forest Watch, launched just a few weeks ago, the Global Restoration Initiative, and the Forest Legality Alliance. All of these efforts aim to address underlying causes of forest loss and decline linked to markets, governance, rights and access to information.
Mongabay:What do you see at the next big idea or emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation?
I am biased of course but must mention Global Forest Watch—check it out and let us know what you think!
Regreening and forest landscape restoration is another very important area.
Fundamentally I believe that concern about climate change and related issues of food security and water scarcity will drive massive changes in the way we work on forests and landscapes over the next decade. What better way of sequestering carbon than growing trees? And this is also a key part of adaptation to climate change. This doesn’t need massive funding; it needs more careful work on issues related to land and forest tenure, recognition of rights, and better linkages to markets.
The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020
is another interesting space to watch. We are partners and see a lot happening somewhat behind the scenes as key companies and governments get more serious about forest loss linked to major commodities. It’s still early, but I am optimistic that we will be able to help some new directions emerge from TFA.
Mongabay: GFW is already an incredibly powerful platform. What new functionalities do you envision it offering two years from now? What about five years down the road?
Nigel Sizer: This is a really key question. As we have built GFW what we have really intended to do is to create the partnership, the team, and the resources to be able to keep up with technological advances as the years go by. It has taken us a couple of years and a lot of effort to catch up with where the technology is now, and to figure out what additional data is already out there that we should include. Over the next year we aim to include for example much more information about people on GFW—indigenous peoples’ and community land claims for many countries, this is one of our highest priorities. We also aim to add far more detailed information relevant to climate change, helping support monitoring and reporting needs related to greenhouse gas emissions and land use change. More concession and land use and ownership information will also be included.
Over the longer term, the next two to five years, we expect GFW to undergo dramatic redesign to support much more country-specific use since most users will be interested in their countries, add higher resolution remotely sensed data. On the latter we expect data to become more widely available at five meters resolution and perhaps with daily updates—greatly increasing our ability to detect smaller scale changes and report on those far more rapidly. In other words we aim to take GFW from near real time to virtually real time and to very high resolution, while maintaining extreme ease of use.
Finally, we expect to develop, and see others develop, more specialized “apps” atop the GFW system, for example to support companies with their supply chain management in relation to reducing deforestation in those supply chains, or governments wanting easier to use illegal clearing detection systems to support law enforcement. Much, much more work is also needed to strengthen the crowdsourcing and community engagement aspects of GFW. We have several staff now dedicated to this aspect.
Mongabay: Do you envision ways of integrating proxies or metrics for other ecosystem services like water and food security into GFW?
Global Forest Watch team and partners at launch. Photo courtesy of Nigel Sizer.
Nigel Sizer: WRI already has a wonderful water risk tool called Aqueduct, and we are exploring possible linkages to GFW. Food security links in through the need to better measure and monitor agroforestry systems, and the wider health of agroecosystems. These are all areas that we hope to see advancing soon, and that we hope GFW and related work will be able to further enable. Much of this will be done by others using the information that we make more readily available, and much of it we may never even know about as groups around the world explore the power of big data and natural resources management.
Mongabay:In regards to conservation, is there anything you feel is NOT working (or not working well) that continues to get a lot of attention and support?
Great question! Well, overall the global trends are not good, so clearly a lot is not working. Politicians still don’t get it, too few business leaders are really engaged, and large-scale corruption and patronage are still the norm when it comes to land and forests in many countries. Much more effort needs to be made to tackle the underlying governance and markets issues, and support alliances and coalitions locally and more broadly that are trying to do that. Radical transparency through Global Forest Watch is the contribution that my team is aiming to make to that process.
Deforestation tracking system recognized with global innovation award
(03/19/2014) A global deforestation tracking tool developed by Mongabay and NASA has been honored as a Finalist for the 2013 Katerva Award.
Sharp jump in deforestation when Amazon parks lose protected status
(03/01/2014) Areas that have had their protected status removed or reduced have experienced a sharp increase in forest loss thereafter, finds a new study published by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO.
New forest map for Sarawak reveals large-scale deforestation, encroachment on indigenous territories
(02/24/2014) A new online platform released by the Bruno Manser Fund reveals large-scale destruction of Sarawak’s rainforests, peatlands, and traditional lands. Drawing from a variety of sources, the Sarawak Geoportal includes data on logging concessions, oil palm plantations, existing and proposed dams, historical forest cover, the extent of indigenous cultivated areas, election results, and area where there are current native customary rights (NCR) disputes.
Revolutionary Google-backed system unlocks power of ‘big data’ to save forests
(02/20/2014) World Resources Institute (WRI) today announced the release of a tool that promises to revolutionize forest monitoring. The platform, called Global Forest Watch and developed over several years with more than 40 partners, draws from a rich array of big data related to the word’s forests and translates it into interactive maps and charts that reveal trends in deforestation, forest recovery, and industrial forestry expansion. Global Forest Watch is the first tool to monitors global forests on a monthly basis, allowing authorities and conservationists to potentially take action against deforestation as it is occurring.
Democratizing forest monitoring on a global scale
(12/17/2013) Efforts to map and analyze deforestation and forest degradation got a boost today when Stanford University announced a new online course that provides training on how to use advance forest monitoring software. The course, which is freely available via Stanford University Online Learning, could immediately increase the capacity of environmentalists, forest managers, and researchers to track changes in forest cover.
Conventional satellite imagery may underestimate forest clearing for subsistence agriculture
(12/09/2013) Analysis of forest cover using medium-scale satellite imagery may miss deforestation for small-scale subsistence agriculture, finds a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.