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Mapping forest degradation using remote sensing data in Uganda

Blog | Tue, 25 Feb, 2020 · 8 min read
Mapping forest degradation using remote sensing data in Uganda

Uganda’s lush tropical jungles, rainforests, savannahs, lakes and rivers are home to an astonishing array of biodiversity. In addition to supporting wildlife, so vital for the country's future heritage and tourist industry, Uganda's forest resources are an essential foundation for the country's climate change commitments as well as livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.

However, these valuable forest resources are disappearing rapidly. According to Uganda’s Forest Reference Level submitted in 2017, deforestation in Uganda is occurring at a rate of 50,147 hectares annually, which creates emissions equivalent to 8,253,982 tons of CO2. If this rate continues unabated, most of the forested area of Uganda will disappear within the coming century.

Mapping forest degradation using remote sensing data in Uganda

To protect Uganda’s forests and sustainably manage its 506 Central Forest Reserves, the National Forest Authority (NFA) of Uganda was established and launched in 2004. Located in Kampala, the NFA team is working on strengthening the country’s National Forest Monitoring System (NFMS) with the goal of developing reliable forest resource information. Information on forest resources is essential for policy-making, reporting, planning and sustainable management, all critical for the battle against climate change. A robust and efficient NFMS relies on accurate and timely data coming from on-the-ground forest measurements, as well as from Satellite Land Monitoring Systems (SLMS). In Uganda, the SLMS work is managed by the Remote Sensing/GIS unit, a small, specialized team in the NFA in charge of remote sensing and GIS analysis of the forest sector.

Despite the country’s long history of forest monitoring, it is only within the framework of the UN-REDD Programme’s support that Uganda has started developing a structured NFMS. Today, the Remote Sensing/GIS unit is considered one of the most strategic of the NFA. The unit receives several requests a day to provide support in mapping, reporting or data production under the framework of various initiatives, such as the FAO/UNHCR Woodfuel Assessment project, designed to map land area changes around refugee settlements. A considerable amount of work is required from the unit to develop land use and land cover maps and statistics, forest to non-forest change analyses and, starting this year, forest degradation estimates.

Forest degradation

Forest degradation, compared to deforestation, is harder to detect and quantify. With forest degradation occurring throughout the world at an alarming rate, it features prominently in recent international objectives, goals and targets related to forests such as the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In June 2019, the Remote Sensing/GIS unit took on the challenging task of assessing forest degradation across Uganda for the first time. Forest degradation is a serious environmental, social and economic problem for the country. However, quantifying the scale of the problem is difficult. There are many causes of forest degradation, many different forms with varying intensity and different perceptions from various stakeholders. But with the help of FAO’s innovative SEPAL platform, the first estimates of forest degradation at country scale have recently been generated. SEPAL is an open-source software that offers countries unparalleled access to satellite data and computing power, paving the way for improved climate change mitigation plans and better informed land-use policies. With the launch of SEPAL 2.1, these operations have been simplified and stabilized.

SEPAL reports and photographic evidence indicated a high rate of deforestation and forest degradation in the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in the western part of Uganda. As a result, the unit was requested to investigate the area in more detail.

Covering 41,100 hectares, this protected area is the largest remaining block of natural tropical forest along the Albertine Rift Valley, home to about 500 chimpanzees (10% of the Ugandan chimpanzee population), along with other rare primates and 221 recorded species of birds. Biodiversity surveys of Bugoma also record 224 species of trees and shrubs, more than any other forest in the region. Furthermore, Bugoma provides several forest products, such as woodfuel and services to the surrounding communities.

Forest monitoring in the area has been urgently prioritized due to the proximity of Bugoma to the city of Hoima, where the population has increased in the last decade and to the Kyangwali refugee settlement, just a few metres from the forest boundary. The final report on deforestation and forest degradation in the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve between 2016 and 2019 clearly shows how human activities are putting pressure on the forest ecosystem.

Deforestation (in red) and degradation (in orange) in Bugoma central forest reserve in 2018 and 2019
Deforestation (in red) and degradation (in orange) in Bugoma central forest reserve in 2018 and 2019


This report, which presents data and trends over time, will support policy-making and necessary management decisions that will be taken to protect the Bugoma ecosystem and serve as an important strategic step toward the sustainable management of Uganda’s forests. As the first forest degradation report in the country, it lays the foundation for similar work to be used in other parts of Uganda.