The Chico Mendes Extractivist Reserve, in the Brazilian state of Acre, has an area almost the size of Lebanon, covered in rainforest, criss-crossed by rivers, and with limited access. Rubber trees are scattered across the area, and the population of around 2000 families is similarly dispersed in remote homesteads and settlements. Traditional activities such as rubber tapping and Brazil nut collection are important, but the reserve faces growing pressures from other land uses – cattle ranching in particular.
Despite major logistical challenges, forty young residents have been trained in using smart phones to collect a vast amount of data on life in the reserve. This is as part of a community-based forest monitoring project called Sinal Verde (Green Signal, in Portguese).
The residents themselves selected the indicators to monitor, under three themes: community wellbeing, economic development, and forest governance. Their findings are not only being used to guide reserve management, but are informing Acre State’s policies to address the pressures areas like this reserve, using a framework for REDD+ (reducing emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation and forest degradation), as we will see.
The monitors collected data on health, education, and perception of public services. This highlighted priorities for local action, such as the fact that that most families get water from wells and creeks, and 39% consume it without any kind of treatment.
In terms of REDD+ and wellbeing, countries need to put in place various safeguards, to make sure REDD+ has a positive impact on local people and biodiversity. The Acre State safeguards system includes the wellbeing of indigenous peoples and communities. Sinal Verde shows that forest residents could assess whether safeguards are working, and track the social impact of REDD+.
The forest monitors looked at the main forest products extracted in the reserve: Brazil nuts (harvested by 60% of families) and rubber latex (by 22%). Acre State has policies to promote sustainable products like these, which reduce the incentives to clear forest, including through a rubber subsidy. However, the monitoring showed that around two thirds of families were unaware of this subsidy. Harvesting Brazil nuts is more worthwhile for some families than others, as the price they receive varies greatly depending on their location.
This demonstrates how local people can gather data on the economic impacts of forest products, and on access to markets and public support programmes. Similar methodologies could be used to track the distribution of benefits from a REDD+ programme.
The monitors found many disputes over the boundaries between areas of forest used by different rubber tappers, and just one in three people were members of a residents’ association. These conflicts and the low levels of social cohesion made it particularly difficult to collect data on sensitive topics, such as cattle pastures: policies to reduce deforestation would need to address these challenges.
The monitors also asked residents about their perception of key governance mechanisms, such as the reserve Management Council. They found that 37% of people were not aware of the Management Plan, and only 21% thought it was working. This type of data will be very relevant to understand the reach and awareness of protected area management, including REDD+.
Although this blog focuses on linking the monitoring findings to REDD+, the initiative has brought local benefits. The Management Council is using the information, while the smart phones generated enthusiasm among young people about becoming forest monitors. This stimulated their interest in conservation, and they became local leaders for the project, explaining key concepts and their findings to their village councils. As a result of the findings, Acre State has launched an outreach campaign in the reserve to raise awareness of their environmental policies.
The process of this initiative has been as useful as the findings, showing that community-based monitoring using technology can benefit forest people and support policy development in Acre, and potentially across the Amazon.
There is more information on Sinal Verde in this case study, and this final report. Sinal Verde was implemented by the Centre for Amazonian Workers (CTA for the Portuguese acronym), a local NGO working in the reserve, and coordinated by Forest COMPASS. Sinal Verde draws on a similar initiative with indigenous communities on the northern edge of the Amazon, in Guyana.