A jeep safari drives away from the camera on a dirt path surrounded by forest.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Land Cover, Land Use Change, and Ecosystems

By SERVIR Global

According to the United Nations, close to 1.7 billion people – almost 25% of the world’s population - rely on forests for shelter, livelihoods, water, food, and fuel security. Forests renew our air supply, as they take in large amounts of carbon dioxide and release oxygen. They also provide habitat for wildlife, help protect watersheds, reduce soil erosion, and mitigate climate change. Earth observation analyses reveal, however, that forests worldwide are in constant change. Most of that change is occurring in the tropics where deforestation has been accelerating since the 1990s.

To sustainably manage forest landscapes, governments and decision makers need accurate and up-to-date information on the extent of the forests they manage and the ways they are changing. Tracking forest loss and land cover change over time and at local, national, and global scales has never been more important.

Land cover, land use change, and ecosystems is one of SERVIR’s four thematic service areas¹. The focus of this service area is to work with regional and national institutions on the use of Earth observation and geospatial technologies for improved forest and land management, policy, and planning. SERVIR hubs are at the forefront in developing high-quality land cover information, tools, products, and services that enable partner countries to monitor, measure, and report on forest cover and terrestrial carbon.

SERVIR hubs also help develop and build capacity of regional and national institutions to support international commitments. For example, this includes supporting the generation of greenhouse gas inventories and participating in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). SERVIR partners with SilvaCarbon to expand its outreach on capacity building and generate innovative solutions for national and regional forest and landscape monitoring systems.

The following four examples highlight some of the innovative services and tools that support SERVIR’s work on land cover, land use change, and ecosystems in each of the hubs, empowering decision-makers to better address critical issues related to this service area.

See below for interviews with SERVIR team members working on these services.

Monitoring and Projecting Environmental Change in Fragmented Tropical Forest Landscapes
SERVIR-West Africa


Satellite image of fragmented West African forests
Satellite image of fragmented West African forests

The Upper Guinean Forests of West Africa are among the most vulnerable of the Earth’s tropical ecosystems due to pressures from deforestation and expansion of agricultural production. Although much of the native forest cover has already been lost, Ghana has maintained a substantial area of closed canopy forest in a network of protected areas. However, many of these reserves are being degraded as a result of logging and fire, while population growth and agricultural intensification are also reducing the amount of native tree cover outside the reserves. To develop strategies for sustainable forest management, there is a need for more precise geospatial information about the spatial and temporal patterns of forest degradation along with projections of the likely effects of future climate and land use change.

SERVIR-West Africa at the Agrimeteorology, Hydrology, and Meteorology Regional Center (AGRHYMET), is developing a new service in order to address this challenge. An accompanying tool is being developed in collaboration with a SERVIR Applied Sciences Team (AST) being led by Michael Wimberly, to integrate Landsat satellite data and landscape simulation models to map historical forest degradation and project future impacts of climate and land use change on West African forests. The historical datasets and future projections generated by this tool will support forest planning to enhance forest ecosystem resilience to climate and land use change. In particular, identifying hot spots of ongoing forest degradation can help to monitor areas at risk for future forest loss and target forest protection efforts more effectively. The tool is designed to encourage and facilitate the broader use of remote sensing data and land change models to support forest management across the West African region.

Land Cover Mapping for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory in Africa
SERVIR-Eastern and Southern Africa


Sample SERVIR Tanzania Land Cover Map
Sample SERVIR Tanzania Land Cover Map

Carbon storage is an important ecosystem service of healthy forests and woodlands because it mitigates the effects of human-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Globally, changes in land cover and land use, due primarily to deforestation, contribute up to 18% of natural greenhouse gas emissions. In Africa these changes are the biggest contributors, necessitating closer tracking of these changes in forests, ground cover, and land use. To mitigate and manage their impacts, as well as to meet their reporting commitments to international agreements and climate change initiatives, countries need accurate data to monitor and estimate carbon storage or emissions.

Land Cover Mapping for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory is a service developed by SERVIR-Eastern and Southern Africa at the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD). This service is helping nine African nations² develop the ability to analyze the impact of land cover change on GHG emissions. The tool designed for this purpose generates baseline data, using Landsat satellite imagery, to develop time-series maps that track changes to land cover and land use over time, enabling the production of accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventories. Training is also provided to national GHG teams in relevant ministries of forest and/or environment to build the capacity of institutions across the region on how to use this tool to independently develop their own inventories.

"The delivery of the maps could not have occurred at a better time...we are disseminating these maps so they can be used…for the benefit and development of our country," notes Dr. Rose Mukankomeje, Director General, Rwanda Environmental Management Authority.

Forest Fire Detection and Monitoring in Nepal
SERVIR-Hindu Kush Himalaya


Map generated by the Nepal Forest Fire Detection and Monitoring tool
Map generated by the Forest Fire Detection and Monitoring tool on May 1, 2018. Registered users can download forest fire incidence maps that are generated by the system daily.

Forest fires have become an environmental concern in recent years in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, posing a threat to human life and property, as well as the area’s natural environment. In Nepal, a record number of fires were reported in 2016, killing 15 people and consuming an area of 13,000 square kilometers (1.3 million hectares) in the span of just two weeks.

Given this increased risk, a reliable and timely fire detection and monitoring system is an important component of forest fire management. Through SERVIR-Hindu Kush Himalaya at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), data from NASA satellites are helping Nepalese forest officials detect and monitor forest fires in real time, allowing for a more effective and targeted response.

The Forest Fire Detection and Monitoring System carries out automated data acquisition, processing, and reporting on locations of active fires present during the satellites’ twice-daily overpasses, automatically adding important information such as administrative units, land cover type, elevation, and slope. With each satellite overpass, if a forest fire is detected, the system delivers mobile phone text messages to subscribers in the affected area. These alerts, delivered within 20 minutes of detection, have the ability to reach hundreds of local officials and community members. The information is also published through a web mapping portal that displays fire locations on any given day or in a user-specified time period.

Mohan Raj Kaphle, District Forest Officer from Lamjung, Nepal reports that the system has been very useful in mobilizing actors to combat forest fires. “The system sends information on all forest fires via emails and SMS alerts to registered users. As we work with many actors – local police, army and the local community – the location information is especially important in mobilizing immediate response towards forest fire remediation.”

Three years after its rollout, the forest fire detection and monitoring system has become a key decision-support tool of the Nepal Department of Forests, and has since been launched in neighboring Bhutan where it is providing officials and the public with a new, effective forest fire management tool.

Eco-Dash Tool


View of satellite-based vegetation condition  map of the Lower Mekong region.
View of satellite-based vegetation condition map of the Lower Mekong region.

Changes to vegetation can have a significant impact on health, resilience, growth, and sustainable development. Ensuring ecological stability and biological productivity over a large area is a common goal for landscape policy and management. The Eco-Dash Tool, developed by SERVIR-Mekong at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), is a land monitoring application that uses NASA MODIS satellite images to compare the biological productivity of areas across periods of months-to-years using the Enhanced Vegetation Index – a sensor designed to monitor vegetation. This tool was created in response to a need expressed by project managers to track the performance of landscape-scale efforts to maintain biological productivity.

The original intent of this tool was to gauge the success of environmental policies and sustainability of projects that have been implemented in the region, though the applications can go far beyond assessment. For example, this tool can be used to monitor changes in urban expansion and infrastructure development and related impacts on biological productivity. By monitoring these changes over time, decision makers will be able to make adjustments to their planning and policies as needed to achieve the best result.

"Eco-Dash allowed us to do a fast and cost-effective analysis on the biophysical health of the Vietnam Forest and Deltas intervention areas,” notes Dr. Ate Poortinga, a hydrologist at SERVIR-Mekong. “We were happy to see that the areas where we work show fast improvement compared to the baseline condition and country average.”

These four examples highlight just a few of the many geospatial services SERVIR has produced to help people in developing countries make better informed decisions related to forest ecosystem management and land use change. With new services in development, innovative partnerships, cutting-edge science and an expanding network of hubs, SERVIR looks forward to increasing the use of Earth observing data as it continues to connect space to village.

Click on the links below to read interviews from Thematic Leads and specialists from across the SERVIR Global network who support the Landscape and Ecosystems service area:

This blog was originally published on the SERVIR Global website.


SERVIR connects space to village by helping developing countries use satellite data to address challenges in food security, water resources, weather and climate, land use, and natural disasters. A partnership of NASA, USAID, and leading technical organizations, SERVIR develops innovative solutions to improve livelihoods and foster self-reliance in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. SERVIR’s four thematic service areas are: agriculture and food security; land cover, land use change, and ecosystems; water and disasters, and; weather and climate. More information on SERVIR and its four hubs can be found at www.servirglobal.net.

Botswana, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration
Adaptation, Ecosystem-based Adaptation, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Forestry, Land Use, Monitoring and Evaluation
Africa, Asia


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.

SERVIR is improving awareness, increasing access to information, and supporting analysis to help people in West Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, Hindu Kush-Himalaya, the Lower Mekong, South America and Mesoamerica manage challenges in the areas of food security, water resources, land use change, and natural disasters. With activities in more than 45 countries and counting, SERVIR has already developed over 70 custom tools, collaborated with over 250 institutions, and trained more than 3000 individuals, improving the capacity to develop local solutions.

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