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More availability of regional data can help protect Africa’s forests

A new project aims to streamline information systems in East and Southern Africa
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Eucalyptus trees, tea fields and indigenous forest in Kenya. CIFOR/Patrick Shepherd

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East and Southern Africa are home to a wide variety of forests – from tropical and sub-tropical forests, to savannah, acacia and miombo woodlands – which provide livelihoods for millions of people, and significantly contribute to regional socioeconomic development. Apart from providing wood fuel for energy, timber for construction, medicine and food, they also protect soil from erosion, regulate rain patterns and offer recreational opportunities for tourists and locals alike.

To protect these valuable forests, many African countries have signed onto international conservation programs, such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation) and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100). However, these efforts are sometimes undermined by a lack of clear information and monitoring systems at the regional level, according to Paolo Cerutti, a Nairobi-based forester with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Current forest information and monitoring systems in East and Southern Africa are hampered by the lack of regional data and standardized methodologies to produce it, especially on forest use and cover trends,” said Cerutti.

“Lack of up to date and comparable data makes it difficult to establish baselines for monitoring and reporting on the regional state of the forest, hence also helping countries report on their own pledges to international processes such as REDD+ and other climate-related targets and obligations.”

To address these issues, in 2017 CIFOR and the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) developed a prototype for a regional forest observatory, which they named the East and Southern Africa Forest Observatory (OFESA). Their goal was to produce a comprehensive and harmonized regional dataset on the latest trends and threats to forests, and to make information useful and easily accessible to policymakers, funders, forestry practitioners and citizens.

Following a positive reception from users, this initiative just received new support to move on to the next stage. With funding from the European Union, CIFOR and RCMRD are launching a new project to consolidate the observatory, increase its reach, and improve its capacity to produce much-needed regional data.

Promoting data governance and regional data sharing

One of OFESA’s main goals is to contribute to cross-border integration of forest and natural resources management. As regional integration advances through bodies such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a growing need exists for streamlined data to support collaboration in forest management and address common issues.

This project seeks to address that need and foster data-sharing across the region. This entails two activities: first, creating a coherent governance framework which incentivizes and enables participating countries to share, use and analyze data; and second, ensuring that countries and regional organizations are provided with the information they need when they need it.

“Data sharing will only be successful if users feel that the information that they provide to the observatory will return to them with some value added,” said Douglas Bwire, an institutional analysis expert with CIFOR. Consequently, the development of a governance framework to enable countries to collaborate and share data will be a key step to ensure that the data and information that OFESA produces is relevant, consented, and salient for policymakers, he said.

What’s next?

“For OFESA to advance from a prototype to a well-established observatory, CIFOR and RCMRD first need to lay the groundwork to allow this transition,” said Ngugi Kimani, RCMRD Team Leader for OFESA.

They must, for example, work closely with various ministries and other regional and country-level actors to understand their needs, strengthen their capacity to collect data, and address gaps and data quality issues.

“At the beginning, the focus will be on getting participating countries’ needs assessed thoroughly, both in terms of information and data, as well as the know-how needed to use them,” said Kimani. “Then we’ll have a series of ad-hoc trainings to prepare and implement. Hopefully soon we’ll have increased the level of expertise, agreed on standardized sharing protocols, and OFESA can start producing and displaying relevant and coherent datasets and information.”

The project kicked off in September 2020 and will be implemented over the next three years.

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
This research was supported by the European Union.
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