New cost-effective tool could be essential in future forest policymaking
A valuable new tool is in the making to better assess the basic elements of a community’s reliance on its forests and help policy & forest resource practitioners identify threats and opportunities associated with forest resource use, even in the absence of direct in-person research in that community.
The Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II) is developing these “Forest Community Fingerprints” (FCFs) based on its recent forest dependency surveys in rural communities in Eastern Europe and Russia. The fingerprints will allow comparison between communities with similar traits using common metrics. The goal is to better understand how forest resources support various communities across the region in order to facilitate more effective policies and laws that accurately consider local needs and priorities.
To create these fingerprints, FLEG II experts are developing a quantitative, mathematical approach to calculate and assign relative values for various social, economic, and environmental parameters. They apply data collected from over 1250 households and display it in a spider-web diagram that makes it easy to see patterns in the data to compare one community to the next.
The next step is to link these fingerprints to Earth Observation data and apply the mathematically-derived relationship to unknown communities. This methodology will allow researchers to predict relationships in other remote villages between forest dependency and the community’s geographic and demographic context. By establishing these relationships, it helps forest managers identify communities that share potential risks to their forest resources.
“We know forest resources play a key role in supporting these families, but with approximately 45 million people living in hundreds of rural, forested communities across Eastern Europe and Russia, it is impossible for policy makers to have first-hand research on each one,” said Richard Aishton, FLEG II Program Coordinator for IUCN. “By combining social, economic and geographic data, community fingerprints can help policymakers get a quick understanding of a community’s dependency on its forests so they can prioritize management interventions accordingly. The research is still in its early phases, but we are already seeing tremendous potential for these types of comparative studies.”
Communities depend on forests, but in different ways
Instead of looking at the potential benefits of forest resources, FLEG II’s 2014 forest dependency study quantified what the forest communities actually used from the forest. It showed forest resources such as berries and fuelwood are important for subsistence and cash income at the household level, particularly in areas where rural economies are still lagging behind urban areas and a lack of jobs is forcing many people to leave. Survey respondents also viewed forest products as declining in availability and cited reasons such as overharvesting, illegal logging, and climate change as main causes of the shrinking resource bases.
But the resource use and perceived threats varied from one community to the next. Each community uses the forest in a different way based on the knowledge and demographics of the community and the forest and other economic resources available. This variation in forest use demands that policy makers not take a one-size-fits-all approach to managing forests, yet it is difficult, time consuming and expensive to assess large numbers of small villages in remote areas.
By making well-researched associations between social and economic conditions, forest use and forest resources to create community fingerprints, researchers can identify forested communities that may be at risk or need more immediate management interventions. The fingerprints allow forest managers to see quick comparisons between communities to see whether other communities are likely to be in similar circumstances or in need of similar interventions.
“We’re looking at what these communities actually use from the forests, how much it contributes to their livelihoods and ability to survive, and how that relates to the geography around them,” said Aishton. “Using these fingerprints, if one community is shown to have experienced major trouble due to an ‘unbalanced’ use of forest resources, natural resource practitioners can quickly find other communities which may be on the same path and take action.”
Already, local and national policymakers in the seven countries have expressed interest in building on this work and the potential for using the completed fingerprints tool in making forest management decisions. Some international organizations have also discussed its potential for identifying communities in need of help and as a tool for assessing the impacts of their projects before and after the interventions.
How it works
For the rural forested communities that took part in the forest dependency study, FLEG II experts worked with field consultants to determine common local drivers that affect the individual and collective use of forest resources. These communities will become the known quantities to which FLEG will use as the basis for comparisons with other communities.
The experts organised the drivers into six categories: human resources, financial capital, the market system, forest-based knowledge, forest ecosystem stability, and infrastructure. Each category comprises over 20 parameters and more than 20 variables assigned with relative numeric values. The results of assessing this on-the-ground data create a unique “Forest Community Fingerprint” which the experts display in a spider diagram.
These diagrams visually depict the relationships between a community and its forest resource base and show potential intervention points based on the six categories of information. Because the system of assigning values to each category are consistent from one community to the next, it allows researchers to compare communities in the ways they consume or conserve forest resources and the other economic or social factors that influence these actions.
FLEG experts are also working to use the fingerprints as the basis for identifying the risks and intervention points of remote communities where there is little information about the community’s relationship with its forests. To do this, the experts link the Forest Community Fingerprints to an Earth Observation Fingerprint based on satellite and demographic data including population dynamics, financial income, land cover and land use, forest resources, the character of the sites and infrastructure.
By comparing the two fingerprints, experts hope to be able to identify the relationships between forest dependency and more readily available satellite and demographic information. Examining patterns that emerge between the community fingerprints and the satellite images will enable FLEG II to identify whether the potential exists to use satellite imagery to forecast the resource use and level of risk in other rural communities. FLEG II will send field teams to verify any connections or relationships that emerge from analyzing the patters from field and satellite data to confirm the accuracy and limitations of the fingerprint-satellite comparisons.
“Imagine the utility of being able to discern at-risk, rural communities from a satellite image,” said Aishton. “If we can begin to make these connections with reasonable accuracy, it can give forest managers a cost-effective head start in knowing what actions to take and where, before it is too late.”
Preliminary results in late summer 2015
FLEG expects to have preliminary results of the community fingerprint comparisons with satellite data by late summer 2015, and it will continue refining the methodology and testing its veracity throughout the autumn.
Upon successful verification of the FLEG II fingerprint work in Eastern Europe, IUCN hopes to test this methodology in other geographic regions located in northern temperate and boreal forest settings including Central & Western Europe, Scandinavia, northern United States, and Canada. There is also interest in applying the fingerprint tools to work in central and Sub-Saharan Africa.
FLEG II undertook the forest dependency surveys in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine over the summer of 2014. It is currently processing the data for specific country-level reports, and the executive summary and complete results of the study from the regional perspective is available to read or download from the FLEG II website.