Supporting biosphere reserves management by mapping forests with open-source tools


Dr Anoumou Kemavo is an international project manager at Office national des forêts - International (ONFI) in France and a trainer at the School of Geomatics and Territory in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

As an expert on tropical forests, he has worked on the Lake Chad Biosphere and Heritage Project (BIOPALT) and on several projects around the world for the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. Particularly interested in the field applications of geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and mapping, he organises free training on open-source mapping tools and participatory workshops for forestry projects.

He received the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme's Young Scientist Award in 2012 for the elaboration of a participative land-planning master plan

for the Oti-Kéran/Oti-Mandouri Biosphere Reserve in Togo.

How did you first get to know about the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB)?

I learnt about the MAB Programme when I was at the Regional Post-university School for the Integrated Planning and Management of Tropical Forests and Territories (ERAIFT). We studied the MAB model and went out on a field trip to see what MAB did up close, in the Luki Biosphere Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After that, it was also very much through the recommendations of an acquaintance from the Ministry of the Environment and Forest Resources of Togo.

She was the one who told me about the MAB Young Scientist Awards. I looked it up and it was the right time to apply. It was a whole flow of information that led me to the MAB Programme.

What was your aim when you applied for the MAB Young Scientist award?

At the very beginning, my ambition was to get into the world of research. I left ERAIFT in 2011, we had to do six months of studies on a subject of our choice, I had chosen remote sensing on a wildlife reserve in Togo.

Then, to continue my research, I became interested in these awards, which I heard about at the right time. It matched my expectations, and I already knew a little about MAB through ERAIFT, which actually stems from MAB. In 2012, I submitted my application, and I was selected! That was the first brick in the whole picture. From then on, it built up little by little. My first ambition was research and that has continued to evolve until now.

The project you presented for the MAB Young Scientist Awards was about Oti-Kéran/Oti-Mandouri, Togo's first biosphere reserve. Tell us a little more about that.

When I started in 2011, the site was not yet a biosphere reserve. The ministry wanted to make it an extension of the W transboundary park, which includes Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. Incidentally, the W Park has now become a transboundary biosphere reserve. But before that, we wanted to add Oti-Kéran/Oti-Mandouri to this pre-existing continuity to create a corridor for the passage of elephants between these three countries and Togo. So, the area of the site was already well defined and the mandate was to find out if it could be transformed into a biosphere reserve.

It became one in 2012. So, it was a very interesting time, I was going to be hired to do research on this new site. It was going to be the first biosphere reserve in Togo. There was a big component of development and public participation.

For me, this was a great time, there had been a whole process of consultation and exchanges, and since the cartography was not quite there yet, that is where I got involved. I had just returned from ERAIFT and my background before that, back at university in Morocco, was in forestry engineering, specialising in the geomatics of natural resources. With this background, I was able to propose something for the mapping of the project, for the participatory workshops, to reinforce the work carried out in setting up the transition towards becoming a biosphere reserve.

In practice, what was the MAB Young Scientist Awards grant used for?

In order to do everything we had planned, we had to travel to the field, organise the workshops, do field collections, buy materials, get accommodation there. I spent USD 4,990, I remember very well, the grant was USD 5000. So, it was basically all used for operation, field collection, room rental, etc. The workshops took up a lot of resources. 

For instance, in our context, we had to make a contribution to transportation. It's a rural population, people are working in their fields. First, you ask if you can address the people, the village chief makes the announcement, you're going to take up a farmer’s entire day, so you need some kind of compensation. So, the scholarship was very useful for that.

That's how the grant was used, and without it, the work could not have been done, not with the same results anyway. I was in the field for over six months. In Oti-Kéran/Oti-Mandouri I was independent, I was not linked to any structure or university. I was attached to the Ministry of the Environment, as I was working on their site, but I was an independent researcher and that is when I really thought I enjoyed research.

How do you get started with a PhD when you’re an independent researcher?

After ERAIFT, I wanted to apply for a PhD, but without funds it was complicated. The grant came and I was able to do my research freely. At the same time, during this period, I was contacted by the Office national des forêts - International (ONFI), following a project I had done with them in the Democratic Republic of Congo while I was at ERAIFT. This was also in 2012. They offered me a contract and I was very interested, it was exactly in my field. But I had started my research using the award grant and I wanted to take my time to finish this research before committing myself to another job. We kept in touch, and in 2013, I finished my research work and then I started working with ONFI. And it's now been eight years.

I started working and for the first two years this ambition for research didn’t stop. In 2014, I launched my PhD at the University of Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, using my own resources.

Finally, in 2018, I defended my thesis, all the while being at ONFI, and with international missions, the consultancy work, it was intense, but we went through it! As a side note, the Oti-Kéran/Oti-Mandouri site, which is dear to me, was one of my five case studies. I went back in 2016 for some interviews and to check my remote sensing data and radar images in the field. You never do remote sensing without going to the field, that's fundamental!

So, from 2014 to 2018, I was an international expert and a PhD student... It was full time, for four years, it was a commitment, it took some will, there was nothing else.

Following your PhD, you had become a fully-fledged expert in the field of remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and forest mapping. What can you tell us about how much these tools have become central to conservation and land management?

To give you some context, before 1972, the data, the satellite photos, belonged in the military domain. With the arrival of the LANDSAT 1 satellite, this data was made available to the public for the first time. In fact, the LANDSAT programme was initially dedicated to the scientific study of natural resources. Its cameras were capable of filtering colours, so they can detect chlorophyll and other things, which is very useful for mapping vegetation cover. In short, since 1972, we've been able to follow the evolution of the whole earth. This has given us a huge new perspective, unique in history!

GIS and remote sensing make it possible to analyse these satellite images with ever greater precision. We can easily find out the capacity of natural resources, where they are, how they have changed over time and project what they might do in future. If you wanted to do this, you could go to the field, investigate, ask people questions, but it is expensive and time-consuming. These spatial tools offer an opportunity for a more advanced, faster analysis of these areas. We now can visualise the history and current status of forest resources and areas simultaneously, in near real time. This has revolutionised the planning and management of protected areas.

Today, we are essentially talking about climate change and biodiversity. If you don't know the history of a forest, you cannot be certain that there has been deforestation or to what extent. You could see it on the ground, but with satellite images you can now see it in its entirety.

It's very easy with GIS to do a forest inventory, even to label individual trees, to draw the precise course of rivers, to map buffer zones, it's really very easy. These tools have become indispensable in management and conservation. Another example is the case of elephants and rhinoceros, which we can trace with beacons, and this has become an indispensable tool in the fight against poaching.

“Why do we conserve nature, really? So that we can be sustainable, so that the source of ecosystem services continues to exist and subsists through time”

Once the observation has been made, how do you take this piece of scientific information to decision-makers?

GIS are also defined as a decision-making tool. The map is a medium of visualisation. For example, I am the Minister of Forestry and there is a logging company who wants to exploit 5,000 ha of forest, but we need to know where the 5,000 ha are and what species are there. On what basis do I make my decision to authorise the exploitation or not? I see that part of the area is in a sacred forest. I see that the area is used by the local population for firewood or hunting, my decision will be based on this too. By collecting several pieces of information, we can help the decision-maker to make a coherent decision. So, the map helps taking a decision on that.

Secondly, this is also reflected in the planning of operation on the ground. As a minister, I do not prepare an operation at random, I prepare a plan. I have to take into account future analyses. We can talk about the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme. In this process, member countries establish reference scenarios to frame their future operations and manage their subsidies. To do this they need to know the history of deforestation and this only really comes from remote sensing. If over the last ten years there have been 5,000 ha of deforestation, then over the next ten years, how will the trend evolve? Or how and where can we start reforestation? What is happening to the demography?

So, these tools, satellite images, maps, guide towards coherent choices, informed decisions. The map allows for policy, planning, land use. When we know where things are, we can plan around them. If we want to go to Mars, it is because we have located it and mapped it. Today, cartography is basic, we no longer realise the impact that all this information constantly has in our daily lives. You can go on the internet to go anywhere, all this data is public.

You have worked on Lake Chad. These are famous images, we all know the sequence of years passing by. How powerful are these pictures really?

When you look at these images, it directly touches people's consciousness. In the 1960s, we already knew the surface area of Lake Chad, we could map it. Today, when you compare two images, it's shocking: Indeed, something must be done... This is powerful data to raise awareness and show the need to intervene. These images are of course freely available. The image itself is just an image, what we do with it is another matter. Images can be tools for manipulation, but also for raising awareness and mobilising people.

These images of Lake Chad were very important. The lake is seasonal, it is a combination of several phenomena. We saw that it had shrunk enormously since the 1960s, however it was also the satellite images that allowed us to see that the lake showed signs of recovery. On the ground, we corroborated the data, we saw the effects. The conservation measures had worked.

You have worked in tropical forests on every continent. What are the challenges and where are the good practices?

Deforestation, it gets a lot of media coverage, there is a lot of talk about it, and it’s not for nothing. The first challenge is linked to the resource, if these forests are being degraded, it is linked to our needs, our use, our way of life. The second challenge is the extinction of forest species, fauna and flora, and tree species are also threatened.

We need to juggle the satisfaction of our needs and the habitat of species. Actually, this is the whole point of UNESCO MAB Programme. Humans are not above the resource, humans are not above the forest. If you know that the air you breathe comes from the tree, when a forest is cut down, it means that part of your breathing is cut off. Conservation comes naturally, I think it's an awareness of the interest that these forests represent, just like an ecosystem service. Beyond the economic interest, there is an interest for humanity to conserve these forests. Tropical forests are the lungs of the planet, we are burning our lungs. This is a fundamental issue that must be taken seriously.

We have to recognise that a lot is being done. I am about to leave on a mission to the Congo Basin, on a project to use peatlands and mangroves to adapt to climate change. There are measures that have been put in place to stop coastal erosion and also for the use of wood by the populations. By replanting species for firewood, we are able to supply the local populations who used to cut wood in the forest. There are many projects like this one, and efforts are being made.

Another typical example of a successful project would be a project called Ecomakala Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Goma in the east, which manages wood charcoal production. The idea behind this project is to reduce the pressure on the Virunga National Park by planting eucalyptus trees around the perimeter of the park which will be exploited by the population. This protects the park and avoids going deep in the park for supplies. It physically creates a buffer zone. The park covers more than 700,000 hectares and is the largest protected park in Africa in terms of natural resources. It is classified as a natural world heritage site by UNESCO.

Yet another project, the UNESCO Biosphere and Heritage of Lake Chad project (BIOPALT). This is a transnational project, based on the model of transboundary biosphere reserves. This is the type of project to be encouraged.

More and more, there is talk of ‘environmental accounting’, meaning that each year an estimate of existing natural capital is produced to put into perspective the gross domestic product (GDP), which does not take into account the environmental impact. Natural capital becomes a measurable dimension for assessing a country's footprint. Indicators include resource health, land use, water quality, carbon stock and quality of forest infrastructure. The higher these indicators are, the higher the ecological value. It’s a promising topic. For the moment, this is being done mainly in the academic world, but increasingly it is transferring to the political sphere, at the level of decision-makers. There are many things being done, and we need to keep up the momentum.

“When I look at my career path, I see that the trigger came at a moment when I was told: you can have a scholarship. From there, it all started. I also want to give this trigger to other people. That's my mission”

During your career, you placed a lot of emphasis on the participative dimension of your projects, on local knowledge, on fieldwork. What happens when the expert meets the local?

Expertise is the logical, scientific side of things. If you make a map, you gather information, and then you have to validate this information in the field. The technical notions of cartography are not always easy to transmit, so the experts have to deconstruct their knowledge to be sure what they say is understandable. Also, the experts need local data to verify their own hypotheses.

We say ‘local knowledge’, but in fact it's crucial, these are people who have been settled in a place longer than anyone else, who know their area, the details. They know that ten years ago this happened, they used to hunt there, there was forest up until here then, they are the ‘memory’ of their area. If there hasn’t been much rain, that's linked to the population's experience, they know it. Even if you can see a forest area on satellite images, you learn much more about its condition, its health, its changes, etc. from local information.

Beyond collecting information, how can we align the needs of projects and needs of the local population?

When we do a project that somehow affects the population, we first organise a workshop to collect information and find out about their needs. This workshop is always participatory and is adapted to the local context. If, for example, the women don't speak in front of the men, we split the group in two so that each one can express his or her needs. There, these are things that I have done several times to be able to understand the situation as well as possible and to obtain as much data as possible. The discussions lead to proposals for action to meet the identified needs. Often, as we are in remote areas, the needs revolve around electricity, schools, roads, etc. and this is not always the focus of our forestry project. So sometimes we feel a bit helpless, there are dashed hopes. But it can make these places more visible to national programmes. We see it from the top, they see it from the bottom, at some point it has to intersect.

Projects must be designed so that they can be sustained locally. For example, the Ecomakala project around Virunga Park was taken up by the population because the wood charcoal produced generates income. The money goes into a fund managed by the community to feed other types of plantations. The system worked so well, the project ran for five years and is still going strong today. The plantations have been maintained and they have entered the REDD+ programme. They have obtained additional carbon funds. If the means to an end are self-renewing, the activities become profitable and people will keep them going.

Another example is the Luki project, in the Luki National Park and Biosphere Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is even a museum. There are research activities and income-generating activities in the surrounding villages. The supervised development of fishing, the sale of products from controlled hunting and beekeeping have kept the heart intact. All the ERAIFT students at the time went there on internships to study the park, because it is a really well-rounded case study. The process has been going like this for over 20 years.

In short, it works when the project is first accepted, then appropriated, and self-financed. If it always comes from outside, one day it can all come to a halt. You have to think beyond project timelines and given budgets. When the local population finds its interest in the long-term, not just as a one-off, projects succeed naturally.

You are well versed in Open Source software and you give free GIS courses on WhatsApp. What difference does it make when it’s free?

At the onset, free software allows for wide distribution. In GIS, private software costs EUR 20,000 to 25,000 per licence, on a single computer. If you want to train 20 people with this software, you need a lot of money. Free software, everyone can download it, so instead of spending the price of a licence, you can train 20 people on free software, which often meets the same needs as private software.

But free software is sometimes considered less reliable. I think it's the independence that leads to a fear of not being able to fully master it or not knowing how to fix technical bugs. Of course, on the private version you have technical service support. But free software allows for experimentation, someone who wants to learn can do very well with free software, and if there is a problem, we try to solve it as a group.

I have been training in everything free for 10 years now. All my materials are free. I formed this training group spontaneously from talking with students that I had or who had read my publications. They said to me, we are from the University of Tunis, from Alexandria, at ERAIFT, we have courses in remote sensing, but we would like to go further. So, we set up a course on WhatsApp using the QuantumGIS software. We do the courses recorded on Zoom and then we share them on the web. The fact that it’s free gives you freedom of action and the possibility to train more people. And there is a community, forums, tutorials.

You are the co-founder of the International Laboratory for Environmental Management (LGE-Inter) and the founder of a non-profit called the International Initiative for Development and Democracy (2I2D), both of which are based in Lomé. Does that make you an ‘entrepreneur with a mission’?

We are all on a mission. I'm not talking about political ideas here, but we are all committed to something. For me, it's always clear in my mind that I'm going to work for the well-being of others. My actions, as a scientist and in the community, are oriented towards this. When you show interest in others, you are also doing yourself a favour.

I will say that yes, I am an entrepreneur on a ‘mission’. Today, I give scholarships to primary and secondary school students to encourage them to perform well in their studies. When I look at my career path, I see that the trigger came at a moment when I was told: you can have a scholarship. From there, it all started. I also want to give this trigger to other people. That's my mission.

The laboratory is dedicated to the environment. We noticed that in Togo, pollution is quite significant, especially in Lomé, with the port activities. The law states that any development project must include an environmental and social impact study. But few companies offer this type of study in Togo. So, the idea came from there. We created our laboratory. These studies are the core of our business.

Secondly, still within the framework of impact studies, there are measurements of water quality, air quality and noise. There are very few of these devices in Togo. So, we have invested in buying this equipment, to use it ourselves or to rent it.

Thirdly, there is training. We offer courses on everything related to GIS, remote sensing, webmapping, and I provide distance or face-to-face training for professionals.

Our fourth activity is reforestation. We carry out projects on land to be restored with the communities, who take care of the nurseries. We carry out planting, reforestation and forest management hand-in-hand with the populations.

The association and the laboratory are active in Togo and also beyond. But it's all also a learning process, because I delegate a lot now, my collaborators manage, every week we take stock. They have my trust.

You have on one side an environmental NGO and on the other side a Lab working on development. Do you think ‘environment’ and ‘development’ are compatible?

Yes, it is compatible. If we find the right alignment. Why do we conserve nature, really? So that we can be sustainable, so that the source of ecosystem services continues to exist and subsists through time. Sustainability over time also means development, development is the fact of our continuous presence, here I'm not talking about concrete, I'm talking about quality of life, social services.

To put it schematically, aligning conservation and development is about enabling access to ecosystem services and social services. You can align them. Like the MAB Programme and like the Ecomakala project, it is conservation, the heart of Virunga is protected, but by what? By the buffer zone development project, which gives the communities their living standards and resources. One cannot go without the other. Both pillars are there. If conservation takes over, we will create a space under a glass bell jar, if it is economic development that takes over, the areas will be destroyed, it will serve that one time.

"For the next 50 years, we must dare to be daring, we must continue the efforts towards the self-sufficiency of biosphere reserves"
Lake Chad Satellite image

This model, that is indeed the MAB model, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. According to you, what will be MAB’s role over the next 50 years?

We look back to the past to build our actions in the present. Many biosphere reserves have been set up in Africa, there is even AfriMAB, some of these reserves work very well, like the Luki Biosphere Reserve, and others where it is more difficult. But, I think the important thing is the core of the model. Conservation and development must go together, that's obvious.

Now, regarding actual implementation, in some biosphere reserves the State has to take an active part. When the State has limited resources, these biosphere reserves do not get the attention they deserve, at the risk of losing their status or falling into disuse. In such cases, in addition to relying on the State, as mentioned above, the biosphere reserve must be given a certain degree of autonomy or financial self-sufficiency through its own activities.

Here we are talking about economic activities that feed the biosphere reserves in a circular way, of course we are talking about agriculture, forestry or ecotourism, but also scientific activities.

In a word, governance, with the private sector and local governments. There are many good practices, places where it has worked. For the next 50 years, there is much to emulate and imitate. This is the richness of a network like MAB and its World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Finally, the last word. You train people and starting this year you have started teaching at the School of Geomatics and Territory in Abidjan. What do you tell your young students and the new generation of scientists?

Cultivate yourself! My message is ‘be curious about everything’. Knowledge can be found in everything. There is no time when you don't learn. Let's be aware of everything we can learn, I include myself in that too, we can learn everywhere, we can learn from everything, go for it!

When I was at university in Morocco, we used to say that we would reforest the moon one day. One day we will. Today, the trip to space costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, 20 years ago it was 100 times more. In 20 years' time, it will yet again be divided by 100. This is our capacity for knowledge. We have this capacity for the MAB Programme, for biodiversity, for climate change, for our future development.

You, young scientist, be curious about everything, because that is what you will bestow to the other.