Technology useful for community forest monitoring, but poses cost challenges


Christina MacFarquhar

Digital devices can support, and even enhance, the use of community-collected data in decision-making for forests, but initiatives that rely on them face challenges in the long term because of the cost of buying, maintaining and delivering training on the required technology in places where it is not already prevalent. 

This was one of a number of messages to emerge from an event convened on 9 September by GCP’s Forest COMPASS project at the six-yearly World Forestry Congress, held in South Africa. During the event, community-based forest monitoring practitioners from the Jane Goodall Institute, the Global Canopy Programme, Moabi, and WWF-DRC, working in Uganda, Guyana, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, shared their diverse experiences of using technology such as smartphones and the internet. They explored its strengths, weaknesses and sustainability, and the subsequent implications for the potential of community-collected data to influence different levels of decision-making.

The main advantages cited by the practitioners included fast data transfer, convenience (e.g. tapping a screen to answer questions rather than spending time writing), and the fact that technology can make the data more reliable, in part because the GPS and camera functions on smartphones provide strong evidence of the locations at which data are gathered. These features all increase the likelihood that useful amounts of data will be gathered quickly, will be trusted, and will be received within timeframes that are useful for decision-making.

All five of the initiatives, however, currently rely on external donor funding, and concerns were raised by the speakers about the long-term viability of these models without more steady and long-term financial support. The environmental impact of the production and disposal of smartphones was also raised by one speaker as a sustainability concern.

The Moabi model was the most conservative in its use of technology, relying on just one device, fitted with ODK software, to allow a coordinator to collate data gathered by community members using pen and paper, on REDD+ safeguards compliance. In contrast, in other projects described by the speakers, multiple community monitors managed the devices, using them in their day-to-day work to monitor a variety of environmental and social indicators - e.g. see our North Rupununi (Guyana) and Acre (Brazil) case studies.

One proposed solution to the financial challenge of using technology was to link monitoring initiatives explicitly to government policy frameworks (and hence funding, such as REDD+ payments).  This is similar to previous suggestions for making community-based forest monitoring more viable in general – with or without digital technology. Alternatively, one practitioner suggested, phones could be treated as a means to support other community income-generating activities (such as fruit production and trade), which could then justify their cost while also making the devices available for monitoring activities. It was also suggested that recycled phones could be used instead of new ones, as has been done by Rainforest Connection in Cameroon.

We’ll be posting another blog in November, exploring the technology/decision-making question in more depth and sharing further insights from these practitioners.

In the meantime, our section on digital technology in community-based forest monitoring has grown into a comprehensive set of resources and is worth a visit if you are looking for ideas and examples.