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By Marco Piazza

Better Data for Better Decisions

It is common knowledge that data and information are key elements for sound decisions and policies. This is true also in the forestry sector. The UN-REDD Programme’s Lower Mekong Initiative works with countries to strengthen awareness and technical capacity to collect, develop and use data and monitoring systems in order to keep the pulse of the sustainability and legality of forest product trade and production.


Monitoring the trends of unsustainable or illegal forest activities is challenging to do without taking a proxy approach. On the other hand, using multiple sources of data can help understand the trends in forest, forest management, forest products production and trade, and thereby glean into the trends of legal and illegal forest activities.

The use of global and regional datasets, platforms and tools can support this process and the UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative has compiled a set of global and regional platforms, datasets and tools to support the exploration and monitoring of environmental and social outcomes in the forest sector.


Data Assessment

Besides global and regional databases, what data and monitoring systems exist at country level to record forest practices and utilization?

A starting point to assess the existence and quality of forest monitoring mechanism is a self-assessment at the country level among government and forest stakeholders.

A questionnaire structured on four thematic pillars was developed for countries to record the existence, characteristics and quality of forest monitoring mechanisms, identify gaps and development needs.

Legal basis to Access



  • Land Tenure
  • Area of Protected Forest
  • Forest extent

Legal basis to Operate



  • Forest Management Plans
  • Certified forests
  • Timber production

Legal basis to Trade



  • Legal importers and exports
  • Volume of timber or timber products exported
  • Volume of timber or timber products imported

Existence of Traceability & Legality Systems



  • IT traceability tools
  • Timber Legality Verification Systems
  • Forest Crime Databases

Countries assessments indicated that the majority of the monitoring systems and data sets cover elements related to forest extent and change. This is not surprising considering the extensive work done in all of the countries under the REDD+ readiness phase. Data and information on other areas such as timber production or tracking/tracing of timber products is less developed. A few notable examples were identified, for example Thailand’s system to track illegal forestry practices through the e-tree App.


The country level self-assessment exercise offered an opportunity for government and non-government stakeholders to reflect on the status of forest monitoring systems. From the in-country consultation, the following key points were raised:

  • Data and information systems are often supported by international organization through projects and not institutionalized within national forest monitoring systems. -need for Sustainability   
  • Databases and information often remain accessible only within specific departments or ministries, often difficult to share across sectors and with limited public access. - need for improved Accessibility and data sharing and integration 
  • Collaboration between public and private sector should be improved to ensure greater Reliability and Relevance of data and information.


These statements are in line with the belief that information and any monitoring system should hold at least four characteristics to be better suited for informing decision and policy making.

Elements of Data and monitoring systems for informing decision and policy making



Existence of database(s), data-sets, monitoring systems.



Data sources, methodologies, quality control, error estimates, participatory process



Open data agreements, data packaging



Ownership, institutionalization, affordability


Data and information, first needs to be Available but also needs to be Reliable. Reliability comes with following a clear and transparent methodology of data creation, quality control and ideally ultimately be the result of a participatory process.


Data and information should also be accessible through open data agreements and be packaged in formats suitable for a variety of stakeholders. Finally, they should be Sustainable by ensuring affordability and involvement of trained permanent staff and ultimately be institutionalized within a broader forest monitoring system.

The UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative is working with countries also through a series of information and capacity building webinars aimed at raising awareness of the importance of collecting and reporting data and forest parameters as well as making use of national, regional and global data.  This is done also though mini-clinics on state-of-the-art tools and methods. One example is training and implementation of Near Real Time Monitoring on forest and change and alert systems (NRTM).


How to Use Data for Impact?

Monitoring systems and data integrity is one step towards a paradigm shift in the forestry sector which requires decisions and policies which are evidence-based. Needless to say, data needs to be consumed and used in meaningful ways to trigger such transformational change. A “fertile environment” is needed: political will, willingness from a critical mass (ie consumers of forest products)* are among the key ingredients needed to effectively roll out policies informed by data, towards transformational change to legal and sustainable forests and forest trade.

*Personal responsibility and awareness of the negative impact of forest crimes was assessed in the five Lower Mekong countries and China, under the UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative through a Knowledge, Attitude and Practices Survey.

Take Home Messages


Multiple sources of data can help understand the trends in forest, forest management, forest products production and trade, and can serve as proxy for trends of legal and sustainable vs illegal forest activities.


Impactful forest monitoring is not only about accurate data. It is about information that responds to specific needs and that is communicated clearly in the language of those who must make decisions.


Information and data serving as a vital input to decision-making but a fertile political and social environment is needed for change to occur