Conservation International Does Nature Right

by | Dec 18, 2013

Conservation International is proving to the world that social and economic benefits don't need to come at the expense of nature. Nature is fundamentally essential to future prosperity.

By Max Wright, remote sensing and geospatial modeling analyst, and Melissa Rosa, remote sensing analyst, TEAM Network, Conservation International (, Arlington, Va.

With the help of remote sensing and related geospatial technologies, Conservation International is leading a global effort to identify opportunities for effective climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in the places most sensitive to the impacts of climate change, such as Peru's Alto Mayo Protected Forest (see map below).

Conservation International (CI) is a global organization that employs a comprehensive approach to sustainable development. Its strategy includes leveraging policy, partnerships, fieldwork and science to create the best possible outcomes for the planet. A huge part of CI's efforts focus on helping its government partners overcome the many challenges they face in balancing conservation with their respective development goals, economic interests and politics.

With offices in 29 countries, more than 1,000 partner organizations and thousands of projects under way worldwide, CI's fieldwork includes monitoring many of Earth's most remote strongholds of biodiversity. CI leverages its discoveries and experiences to rally public engagement, calling on governments worldwide to secure the sustainable management of nature.

The Alto Mayo Protected Forest is valuable for both biodiversity conservation and watershed protection.

CI's scientists are in the field every day, monitoring environmental threats and taking action where it is needed most. Science is the cornerstone of everything the organization does, helping CI pinpoint places with critical natural capital so it can identify where every dollar spent will have maximum impact.

Armed with cutting-edge technical capabilities, CI takes on some of the planet's most critical environmental challenges, from the economics of healthy sustainable societies to site-based monitoring of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Among the key tools employed by CI are Earth imagery and geospatial solutions. Following are several examples of how CI employs these technologies.

Reducing Deforestation and Degradation

There has been growing interest in the international community to address the issue of rising carbon dioxide levels and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) resulting from deforestation and degradation. Deforestation and forest degradation in the tropics represent a major source of GHG emissions. Research is ongoing, but the most recent estimates suggest emissions from deforestation and forest degradation account for 6-17 percent of global emissions.

Forest conservation is an effective way to reduce GHG emissions, protect valuable natural resources and maintain critical ecosystems. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) is an innovative global initiative aimed at implementing conservation activities through a process that applies a financial value to the carbon stored in forests and offers incentives to reduce deforestation. CI, in partnership with local communities and governments, implements REDD+ around the world to curb emissions and help communities protect and sustainably manage natural ecosystems to support healthy human societies.

Incorporating Earth Imagery

CI's Badru Mugerwa, Lawrence Tumugabirwe and Aventino Nkwasibwe set an infrared camera trap to capture wild animals on film, such as the jaguar in the photo at right.

To develop and implement robust REDD+ activities, it is vital to assess ecosystem conditions, generate environmental baseline assessments, and develop monitoring systems to track progress and guide activities. Achieving this goal requires data-driven analysis with a strong focus on remote sensing. For example, the Landsat satellite program has provided satellite data for more than 40 years to help researchers evaluate historical land-cover transitions and generate baseline assessments.

This jaguar, from TEAM's Cocha Cashu site in Peru's Manu National Park, was the unknowing subject of the TEAM Network's 1 millionth photograph.

Historical changes in land cover provide insight into the rate and location of forest loss and, combined with ground-based information and local knowledge, offer a better understanding of deforestation patterns. Such information is used to model future deforestation in a business as usual, or baseline, scenario. REDD+ activities implemented on the ground aim to reduce deforestation below this baseline, improve human well-being and protect biodiversity.

Geospatial Analysis Empowers Decision Making

In addition, satellite data are valuable for developing the monitoring systems needed to track progress and guide REDD+ activities. Such monitoring occurs at multiple scales and resolutions, using multiple image sources. CI researchers perform wall-to-wall forest transition mapping of project areas every 3 to 5 years, typically using moderate-resolution imagery (20-30 meters), and quantify the effectiveness of project activities geared toward reducing deforestation and maintaining carbon stocks.

GIS is used to delineate a ZOI around each TEAM site using satellite imagery and spatial data on human activities, allowing researchers to interpret biodiversity trends captured at the plot level.

CI researchers use a range of remote sensing products to complement monitoring systems. CI has created a suite of near real-time fire and forest monitoring and forecasting tools that support national and international REDD+ policy initiatives. CI's Firecast system ( uses a variety of coarse-resolution (250 meters to 25 kilometers) sensors, such as NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and instruments on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), to send daily email alerts of fire observations and fire risk to decision makers and rapid responders in the countries where the system operates.

The active fire alerts are used by governments, conservation organizations and protected area managers to support REDD+ activities, as fire often is used to clear and prepare land for agriculture or pasture. The fire alerts also help decision makers monitor fire-related activities, detect illegal activity in protected areas and enforce fire regulations.

The forest encroachment system developed by CI is based on a quick visual assessment of Landsat imagery and identifies recent forest clearing. Maps and geographic information system (GIS) files are sent to REDD+ project managers for early action on the ground. Fire-risk forecasting currently is used for education and outreach to indigenous and farming communities in Bolivia to help time prescribed burning. Soon the system will also send quarterly forest change alerts derived from MODIS at 250-meter to 5-kilometer resolutions. Although MODIS provides daily information on land cover, persistent cloud cover in the tropics is the most limiting factor for the temporal resolution of deforestation alerts.

Given a ZOI's large area, satellite imagery is the most cost-effective way to detect and monitor land-use change.

High-resolution satellite imagery (1-5 meters) also supports REDD+ activities, as it provides a valuable source of information to estimate the accuracy and uncertainty of baseline information, wall-to-wall transition maps and post-deforestation land uses in target areas. CI uses high-resolution imagery to support a system of landscape accounting that quantifies land use in critical areas with sampling and visual image interpretation.

Coordinating Diverse Activities

CI researchers combine the data collected from remote sensing sources with traditional boots-on-the-ground conservation to mitigate deforestation through targeted intervention and collect the biomass information needed to quantify carbon for emission reductions. Activities to mitigate deforestation vary depending on a project's specific needs and the deforestation's primary drivers.

For example, CI may support activities such as working with local communities to foster sustainable alternative livelihoods, setting up conservation agreements to provide compensation, improving agricultural practices or working with communities to set protocols for protection and enforcement. Carbon is quantified by sampling biomass within a project site and combined with satellite-derived land cover data to determine carbon stock.

The synthesis of this information is critical to support REDD+ initiatives and mitigate carbon emissions from deforestation (see Promoting REDD+ Activities in Peru's Alto Mayo Protected Forest, below). As REDD+ activities gain momentum at the regional, national and international scales, it will fall to the remote sensing community to develop the datasets, methods and tools that are vital to project sustainability, carbon-market development and human preservation.

Spearheading Global Biodiversity and Ecosystem Monitoring

A key component of CI's geospatial analysis efforts is accomplished by the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network, which guides global land-use change detection and analysis for sustainable development in the tropics.

Conserving the biodiversity that underpins Earth's life support systems, stabilizing our climate and ensuring food security may be the greatest challenges of our time. There's a need to document the role that nature plays in the daily life of people across the globe, particularly in the tropics, and to better understand natural-human system interactions.

Using satellite imagery and ground measurements, CI's TEAM Network strives to address this need by systematically monitoring long-term changes in global biodiversity and the main drivers of climate and land-use change. Since its creation in 2002, TEAM has collected and shared millions of data records and products that are publicly available through the TEAM website ( in near real time. TEAM's activities basically act as an early warning system for nature.

TEAM used Landsat imagery to capture a historical time series of forest cover, agriculture and settlements within the Udzungwa TEAM site's ZOI in Tanzania.

Network by Design
The TEAM Network is a partnership among CI, Smithsonian Institution and Wildlife Conservation Society. The initiative has become the largest monitoring network for tropical forest biodiversity in the world, with 16 sites in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

TEAM provides a unique, adaptable model to help users make informed development decisions by gathering systems-level data on biodiversity, climate and land-use change. The network measures key ecosystem services associated with biodiversity by collecting standardized field data through a network of sites at several spatial and temporal scales. Detailed, documented methods allow TEAM scientists to efficiently collect data and compare long-term datasets. The information is used to provide metrics and indicators to help managers and policy makers evaluate different conservation actions and interventions.

Identifying Global Drivers of Change

TEAM provides a model for a systematic, global network that monitors biodiversity and climate as well as nature's role in supporting food security for the developing world. Satellite imagery and spatial data analysis have been crucial for ensuring all sites in the network follow a consistent methodology when placing sampling units, such as vegetation plots, in the field so the sampling design meets the spatial requirement of each TEAM protocol.

In addition, TEAM uses geospatial data to determine the spatial extent of coupled human-natural systems that strongly influence biodiversity at the plot level, because a site's biodiversity changes can be caused by local or regional changes. Such a monitoring area is called a Zone of Interaction (ZOI), encompassing field measurement plots within a protected area as well as interactions among local ecological and human processes exposed to global influences, such as
climate change and nutrient deposition.

Esri's ArcGIS software is used to delineate the ZOI around each TEAM site using satellite imagery and spatial data on human activities”such as development, agriculture, etc.”as well as hydrologic and biological processes, such as migration corridors. The ZOI is identified to quantitatively measure changes in human disturbance, such as population growth and agriculture expansion, as well as precipitation, temperature, forest cover and fire activity around a TEAM site. The resulting data are used to accurately interpret biodiversity trends captured at the plot level and effectively monitor forest resilience at the landscape scale.

Site manager Emanuel Martin measures a tree in one of TEAM's six vegetation plots in Tanzania's Udzungwa National Park. The data are used to calculate carbon stocks.

Due to the ZOI's large area (≤ 10,000 km²), satellite imagery is the most cost-
effective way to detect and monitor land-use change. Imagery is required at multiple scales and resolutions from various image sources because of the socioeconomic context of the area surrounding the site.

For example, the Udzungwa TEAM site located in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania is positioned along the forest frontier where resource extraction is most intense along the forest edge. Areas of high human impact would require fine-to-moderate-resolution satellite imagery (1-30 meters), whereas coarse-resolution imagery would be sufficient in more remote areas of the Udzungwa ZOI.

TEAM primarily uses moderate-resolution Landsat imagery for land-use change detection to capture a historical time series of forest cover, agriculture and urban areas within a ZOI. By mapping historical land-use change, TEAM is able to relate information on change rates and types, such as deforestation and agriculture expansion, within the ZOI to biodiversity trends detected at a TEAM site.

When coupled with spatial data on human population and climate, the land-use analysis provides a robust assessment of the amount and location of deforestation, climate change, human population change, and land conversion for human use within the ZOI. Such an assessment helps land managers make more informed decisions on future development and land use.

Moving Forward

Land-use change detection and forest-resilience monitoring will be implemented across all TEAM sites to help isolate drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem health changes at the plot level. Future work includes developing a forest-resilience indicator that takes into account tree-cover density, height and volume. The project will require high-resolution and near-infrared satellite imagery, as well as light detection and ranging data, to gather more accurate estimates of annual biomass change.             

CI's Six Key Themes

People need nature to survive. Without thriving ecosystems, there's no way to guarantee a stable climate, accessible fresh water and sufficient food, limited threats to human health, rich cultural diversity and the innumerable unknown benefits that nature provides. Conservation International (CI) focuses on six key themes of human needs because they illustrate the deep links between humanity and nature; maximize the impact of CI's experience and expertise; and demonstrate the importance of taking a coordinated local, regional and global approach.

Climate Change
Climate change is one of the greatest environmental issues of our time, and we need to act quickly to prevent irreversible damage to our planet. CI is demonstrating the important role that ecosystems play in adapting to climate change.




Water security is the reliable availability and quality of fresh water at the times and places where it is needed. To achieve water security, CI's strategy targets the protection and restoration of the sources and flows of fresh water.




To support health security, CI focuses on valuing natural ecosystems in terms of health costs and vulnerability to natural
disasters, disease emergence, disease incidence and transmission, and nature's known
and undiscovered contributions to medicine.


CI supports food security by ensuring wild harvests, conserving the ability of ecosystems to support productivity in agricultural areas, and resolving unsustainable resource and land use practices.




Landscapes, seascapes and species have played a fundamental role in science, arts, recreation and religion. CI works to help secure these services and the economic benefits they provide.




Biodiversity conservation provides substantial benefits to meet immediate human needs, such as those for clean, consistent water flows; protection from floods and storms; and a stable climate.



Promoting REDD+ Activities in Peru's Alto Mayo Protected Forest

Deforestation pressure from small-scale agriculture in Peru's Alto Mayo is reduced through innovative livelihood programs.

The Alto Mayo Protected Forest (AMPF) covers approximately 182,000 hectares of land in the Peruvian Amazon. The area is valuable for both biodiversity conservation and watershed protection; unfortunately, it is one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world.

Currently, conventional coffee production is the primary economic activity among AMPF settlers. Most coffee plantations don't use organic fertilizers, pest-control methods or effective post-harvest management techniques, causing coffee plantation productivity to rapidly decrease. When production decreases, most coffee producers deforest new areas to establish new coffee plantations, feeding the deforestation cycle.

Deforestation pressure from small-scale agriculture in Peru'sYlder Cotrina, the coffee farmer above, benefits from Alto Mayo conservation agreements.

As part of its Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) project activities in AMPF, CI is establishing conservation agreements between local communities and the AMPF head office.  The agreements help local communities  increase the productivity and sustainability of their existing coffee plantations, increasing individual family incomes while reducing deforestation by reducing their need to deforest other areas to establish new coffee plantations.

In the absence of REDD+ activities, CI estimated that 8.8 million tons of carbon dioxide would be emitted in AMPF between 2008 and 2017. In 2012, using remote sensing imagery, researchers observed that deforestation decreased 85 percent compared with the baseline for the same period because of the project's interventions. Near real-time systems, also based on remote sensing, were crucial to identifying key areas to establish new conservation agreements, improve enforcement and promote fire control.

Forest areas continue to be monitored, and any reduction in deforestation below the baseline is negotiated in a voluntary carbon market. With the financial support of carbon financing, these actions facilitate the conservation of important natural ecosystems and create opportunities for local communities to explore sustainable development.

For more information on the Alto Mayo Conservation Initiative, visit the Verified Carbon Standard project database website and search for Alto Mayo (


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