Smartphones, REDD+ and the Ameridian communities of North Rupununi, Guyana

Community monitor Grifley Mack using a smartphone for monitoring

Community monitor Grifley Mack using a smartphone for monitoring

International and national statements on community participation in REDD+ are not necessarily put into practice in tropical forests. North Rupununi, in Guyana, is one place where indigenous communities are showing how – and why – they should be involved.

Warm words at the international level encourage participation of forest residents in REDD+. For example, one of the UNFCCC decisions at Cancun asks for “the full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, inter alia indigenous peoples and local communities”. Numerous studies show that data from community monitors can be as accurate as that collected by professional scientists. And unlike professional scientists, forest residents are on-site all year round. Despite this, only 52% of voluntary REDD+ projects involve forest resource users or local government staff in any kind of forest monitoring, whether of biomass, biodiversity or livelihoods. (More in this article)

North Rupununi is a mixed landscape, where the Amazon rainforest meets the savannah. With support from Forest Compass, residents of sixteen Makushi and Wapishana communities are not only measuring biomass in different kinds of forest, but verifying satellite data on deforestation, and linking this to their knowledge of the local causes of deforestation. Although this blog looks at REDD+, the initiative supported sustainable forest management more broadly. The communities also selected social issues to monitor, such as on hunting, fishing, schools, health posts, and even the sensitive issue of domestic violence.

The North Rupununi landscape

The North Rupununi landscape

A crucial element of the initiative is to make the connection between measuring the changes in land use and understanding just what lies behind this. The monitors mapped out the areas where forest is being lost, and discussed why this was happening. Although logging is an important factor, they identified farming as the main local driver of deforestation and forest degradation. Their data shows that the area under traditional, rotational farming in forested areas is growing fast – doubling in just two years – and this combines with a gradual move towards more commercial farming practices.

The monitors looked at the impact of farming on carbon storage, and found that even the oldest fallow farms store less than half the carbon of high canopy forest. A real surprise was when the monitors visited points that had been identified as deforested by the Guyana Forestry Commission: 60% of these showed no signs of disturbance.

The project draws on both tradition and technology: the 32 local monitors use smartphones, open source software (Open Data Kit) and cloud storage to gather, store and manage the data, while a data sharing protocol was built up during extensive discussions in village councils. Local project managers run analyses, but the data remains the property of the communities, under the control of local institutions. Much of the data on social issues is for local decision-making, and is not being shared more widely.

In line with the data sharing protocol, the findings on deforestation have been shared with the Guyana Forestry Commission, to complement data from remote sensing. The experiences from North Rupununi are informing two aspects of Guyana’s REDD+ programme: an opt-in mechanism for indigenous peoples to get involved, and the Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) system. These could be two small steps on the road to unlocking up to $250 million.

This sum is the maximum promised in an agreement with Norway, to be released over five years, if Guyana successfully implements its Low Carbon Development Strategy. REDD+ and avoiding deforestation make up one of the pillars of this strategy. Guyana’s MRV system is essential to track changes in forest carbon stocks to help determine the payments. The participation of different stakeholders, especially indigenous forest communities, is one of two critical components underpinning the agreement.

Overall, the experiences in North Rupununi show that forest residents can indeed monitor carbon stocks and deforestation. They can collect the wide range of data that will be needed to report on REDD+ social and environmental safeguards. The fact that 85% of local leaders felt that the monitoring framework took account of their priorities shows that it is possible to align REDD+ with community interests and sustainable forest management. Communities across the Guiana Shield have been learning from the Makushi and Wapishana, as Forest Compass takes the practical lessons to other community-based forest monitoring programmes.

Delegates of the WFC can also learn about this initiative, its sister project in Acre, Brazil, and many others, by joining Forest Compass on 19th September at 19:45 – 21:00 in Room 12A for our side event: Making Monitoring Matter: How has the use of open-source technology in community-based forest monitoring improved local and external decision making?

Blogpost by Annie Cooper (The Forest Compass initiative of the Global Canopy Programme) –  a.cooper(at)
Pictures courtesy Forest Compass

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