Balancing data transfer with local rights: lessons from a data sharing protocol in Guyana


With support from the Global Canopy Programme, the indigenous Makushi people of North Rupununi, Guyana, monitored various aspects of their lives and the mixed forest/savannah landscapes where they live. Over the course of three years, they generated thousands of pieces of data, covering everything from above ground biomass and drivers of deforestation, to health and sensitive social problems such as alcohol abuse.

A key question for the project partners was how to balance the need for this data to be managed, analysed and shared (so that it can inform decisions on policy and natural resource management), with the need for the sixteen Makushi communities to retain rights over the data and protect sensitive information.

Developing a data sharing protocol was essential. A new section of the Forest COMPASS website explains the process in detail, showing that data sharing requires serious attention within community-based forest monitoring. It is not a simple or automatic process.

Data classification is at the heart of the data sharing protocol. The communities decided to classify data using a “traffic light system" (red, amber and green), shown below. Even though there are no traffic lights on roads in North Rupununi, all participants knew what this meant. Village leaders, councillors and project participants held meetings to discuss the classification, taking the decisions without any coercion from external parties. These discussions highlighted sensitivities around data on village-level social problems (such as alcoholism and domestic violence) and data on the locations of valuable natural resources.

The data classification traffic light system
The data classification traffic light system


Discussions throughout the project were based on the principles of free, prior and informed consent,* and aimed to make sure that everyone understood the risks, value and relevance of the data.

Reaching consensus on data classification proved to be an ongoing process, as in some cases the significance of data was only really understood once it was analysed and visualised. The value and relevance of data can also change over time. Strong local capacity is essential to manage these discussions.

The data sharing protocol also sets out clear roles and processes for sharing data, whether it is classified as red, amber or green. When a request for access is received, the data can either be shared immediately, or the request can be passed to the community decision-making body or discussed further in community assemblies. Basing this system on the traditional village management structures helped ensure that the local communities retain ownership of the process.

Another consideration is data reporting. This needs to happen in ways that fit the audience; for example, local monitors received training in making presentations to their communities, and a local radio station broadcast information from the project. The communities agreed that data on the drivers of deforestation, biomass and traditional farming could be shared with the Guyana Forestry Commission, in formal reports. These can inform the country’s Low Carbon Development Strategy.

It is also important to get the technology right. The project used smartphones to collect the monitoring data, which was then stored in cloud-storage (online data storage, in this case, Dropbox). This proved useful, enabling local people and project facilitators to upload, access and manage data from different places. However, it was also dependent on internet access, and local people needed plenty of training to be able to use the technology confidently.

This experience shows that there need not be a trade-off between respect for local rights and efficient data transfer. The guidelines for data sharing set out in the protocol should enable community decision-makers to deal efficiently with requests for information long after the project has ended. GCP is working with partners in Acre, Brazil, and Wapichan, Guyana, to enable the project to serve as a model for community based forest monitoring and data sharing.


*Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) refers to the collective right of indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making and to give their consent to, or withhold it from, activities affecting their lands, territories, resources and rights. FPIC is enshrined in Guyana’s national law.

This case study gives an overview of the project. There are also two journal articles on the project, here and here.

International Forest Agendas/s