The 2019 Global Forest Watch (GFW) Summit, held in Washington DC this week, opened with a retrospective on how deforestation monitoring systems have matured since their broad development in the early 2010s. Several Latin America countries have their own dedicated system. While many African and Asian countries have not yet created dedicated systems, they have come a long way in deforestation monitoring. Efforts such as Global Forest WatchCIAT’s Terra-i system, and others are mature, providing near real-time data that can help governments, NGOs, the private sector, and others monitor and track deforestation across the world.

Yet, deforestation continues. GFW director Crystal Davis showed how deforestation rates have remained more or less even since 2010. Brazil experienced large reductions in the early 2010s, but deforestation has jumped over the last few years. Colombia’s recent increases in deforestation since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement have alarmed many observers. One of the few positive developments has been recent reductions in deforestation in Indonesia. But even so, the trends over the last few years suggest no substantial progress in reducing deforestation at the global level. There’s a sense that the much-needed transparency provided by satellite-based deforestation monitoring systems has done little to change the overall trend.

What is missing and how can we turn these impressive deforestation monitoring systems into action on the ground?

Some conference speakers emphasized the power of revolutionary technology as a way to go the last mile towards reducing deforestation on the ground. GFW participants showed the enormous potential for using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data. These methods can take common data platforms such as Landsat and develop new insights with data sets we’ve been using for many years now.

Vinicius de Faria and Felipe José Cerignoni of IMAFLORA, SERVIR partners, discuss machine learning for detecting forest degradation in the Amazon with the University of Sheffield’s MG Hethcoat

But the deforestation monitoring community is moving towards incorporating very high-resolution imagery from platforms such as Planet. For example, the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon (MAAP) project uses GFW to find deforestation hotspots over large areas, but then adds value to their analysis using high-resolution imagery. High-resolution imagery can more easily detect selective timber extraction, logging road development, and other changes on the ground unseen in moderate resolution imagery. Many analysts go beyond tracking the extent of forest cover loss to study changes in forest structure from selective logging and natural forest disturbances. SERVIR’s new SAR Handbook shows how accessible radar data has become a powerful new tool for forest monitoring. NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) is generating lots of excitement on how to use laser altimetry from the International Space Station to understand changes in forest structure.

Many conference participants sent a clear message on the need for engagement with people on the ground. Participants emphasized the need to more proactively use the data we have, instead of waiting for perfection. The Climate and Land Use Alliance’s Dan Zarin summarized it as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Farrukh Chishtie from our SERVIR group nicely described how the service planning approach can help us connect to real on-the-ground problems. He emphasized the need for deep engagement with partners to ensure technology systems address their needs.

SERVIR Mekong’s Farrukh Chishtie talking about remote sensing for land-use planning at Global Forest Watch Summit panel.

Farrukh explained how stakeholder mapping helps us understand the actors and decision-making, and how to target applications towards changes in policy, behaviors, and institutions. He also emphasized the need for continuous monitoring, learning, and evaluation – taking an iterative approach to improving services and systems.

The conference’s main takeaway is that we need more engagement. Betty Padilla, an indigenous woman working to reduce deforestation in Peru emphasized this point in her panel session. Seated next to Daniel Castillo of Peru’s Ministry of the Environment, they stressed the need to connect national-level effort to local actions.

Peruvian Betty Padilla discussing deforestation at Global Forest Watch Summit.

The SERVIR team gave an overview presentation of the program’s work related to forest monitoring and ecosystem management.


A joint development initiative of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), SERVIR works in partnership with leading regional organizations world-wide to help developing countries use information provided by Earth observing satellites and geospatial technologies for managing climate risks and land use. We empower decision-makers with tools, products, and services to act locally on climate-sensitive issues such as disasters, agriculture, water, and ecosystems and land use.

More information at SERVIR-Global and SERVIR-Amazonia.

Author of this blog

Glenn Hyman

Glenn Hyman

Data and Science Lead, SIG