From one conservation challenge to the next.

How data helps us to measure our project impacts and to identify future challenges in and around protected areas.

Buffer zone management Deforestation Laos REDD+ Protected areas Conservation Finance
Laos: Forest preservation


Tropical forest and climate change

Tropical forests play a crucial role in fighting global climate change due to their important role in sequestering millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Therefore, the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) has identified protecting forests and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) as one of their most important goals.

We evaluated a financial cooperation project that contributed to the protection of four national parks in the central Annamese mountain range in Laos and Vietnam. The goal of the project was to reduce deforestation pressures on protected areas by increasing local park management capacities, reducing illegal timber trade, and offering sustainable livelihood alternatives to the local population.

It is undeniably one of the most pleasant tasks for a project evaluator to travel to the project region and collect impressions first hand (Figure 1). However, these experiences also come with their own set of challenges, as we have to decide where we should collect data, as it is generally not feasible to visit the entire study region during our trips. In these cases, satellite imagery and freely available geodata can help us bridge the gap by enabling us to travel through time and space to make sure we get the information we need. The combination of an extensive satellite and geodata-based analysis with field-based impressions allows for a comprehensive overview of the impacts of a project.

Figure 1: Rainforest inside a protected area in Laos visited during the field visit in 2019.
Figure 1: Rainforest inside a protected area in Laos visited during the field visit in 2019.

To quantify GHG emissions based on deforestation in the region, we used the mapme.forest software package, which allows us to automatically download data from Global Forest Watch (GFW) specific to our intervention areas. The package, which is based on the R-programming language, offers a wide variety of tools to download and analyze forest-cover loss data and offers tutorials for its application.


Two relevant insights thanks to the use of geodata

Our analysis shows two relevant results. First, the supported protected area Xe Xap National park (north of the map) was not affected by larger deforestation trends during the project implementation period. However, a neighboring protected area (Pho Theung) was.

From 2015 onwards, we also observe a dramatic decrease in timber exports due to the Laotian Timber Export Ban (data collected from different sources and the project documentation). Reducing these exports was an explicit goal of the project because much of the timber was collected in Xe Xap. In linking both datasets, we can infer that of reducing logging pressure on the core area of Xe Xap (Project Challenge 1) was most likely achieved.

However, in recent years, we also see a dramatic increase in deforestation in the northern buffer areas of Xe Xap. These trends are attributable to shifts toward slash-and-burn cultivation, which is a traditional land-use in Laos that endangers the remaining natural habitats if implemented on a large scale. Reducing slash-and-burn activities in the direct Xe Xap region by increasing agricultural productivity is, therefore, one of the most important challenges for future conservation in the project area and beyond. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and datasets like this can help us to identify where action is most urgently needed, and where we might achieve the biggest impact to assist the local population in fighting global climate change and securing their livelihoods.