Bangladesh’s forest reference level: a tale of five forests

The country builds its technical capacity to assess greenhouse gas emissions and removals across its main forest types.

Ganges dolphins, saltwater crocodiles and Bengal tigers are some of the species found in the Sundarbans, the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world. This is one of four main types of forests in Bangladesh, a biodiversity-rich territory which also happens to be the most densely-populated country on earth and one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) with the Bangladesh Forest Department Mariam Akhter may not be able to curb demographic pressure, but she is part of the team priming this UN-REDD country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions —and increase removals— from forests. A potential triple win for people, climate and the environment in a country that has seen its forest cover significantly shrink in the past century.

As a member of the Resource Information Management System (RIMS) Unit, she is participating in the development of the country’s first forest reference level, a benchmark of the amount of greenhouse gases the country has released from its forests into the atmosphere in the recent past. The reference level is used to assess REDD+ performance, often in the context of results-based payments.

Bangladesh is currently finalizing its reference level for submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “The reference level is important to inform national policies aimed at reducing emissions from forests, and to demonstrate the impact of the various REDD+ activities,” says Akhter.

Identifying the causes of deforestation and forest degradation is a step to constructing

a reference level, and it is important to guide the design of the national REDD+ strategy, which is currently under development in Bangladesh. This is why the country is not building one, but six, reference levels: one at national scale and five at subnational scales that reflect the different dynamics in terms of emissions and removals.


“We calculated historical emissions and removals for five types of forests: natural mangrove forests, which are mainly found in the Sundarbans; Sal (Shorea robusta) forests in the central plains north of Dhaka; mangrove plantations in coastal areas; and hill forests,” says Akhter. The fifth reference level corresponds to what is known as “village common forests”, home gardens that communities manage to fulfill their daily needs.

“We chose to calculate historical emissions and removals at subnational level for planning purposes: we need to know what is causing the loss or gain of forest cover in each area and to what extent, so we can determine which REDD+ activities the Bangladesh Forest Department should undertake, and where, for maximum impact,” she explains. Each type of forest has its own economic and ecological value, and is subject to different pressures.

The UN-REDD Bangladesh National Programme has identified common indirect drivers of forest loss —poverty, overpopulation and governance issues such as unclear land tenure—, and direct ones, including fuelwood and illegal wood harvesting and agricultural, industrial and settlement expansion.

In addition, the UN-REDD Bangladesh National Programme has identified drivers that are specific to certain types of forests. For instance, hill forests are being cleared for agriculture like shifting cultivation while coastal plantation areas are being cleared for shrimp farming, agriculture, or settlements.


Bangladesh has not yet submitted its reference level to the UNFCCC, but the process of constructing it has been a valuable “learning-by-doing” opportunity for specialists in the Forest Department.

“Our technical capacity has significantly improved, so we now feel confident we will be able to construct future reference levels without relying on foreign experts,” says Akhter. “Even if methodologies change in the future, we believe will be able to develop them with just a little guidance.”

In order to construct the reference level, for example, they learned how to analyze large amounts of data by using open source software with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Like many other UN-REDD countries, Bangladesh is taking a stepwise approach to building its reference level. In other words, it aims to improve its coverage and accuracy over time by considering additional carbon pools and greenhouse gases, and by filling gaps such as the lack of robust data on forest fires.

Mariam Akhter is eager to continue learning about new methods and tools to further improve the quality of data on the status of forest resources and carbon stocks. “Better data allows for better decision-making and better forest management, and that —she concludes— is a good start.”

Gloria Pallares

Freelance Journalist for the UN-REDD Programme


This resource is made possible through support from Denmark, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the European Union.


© 2019 UN-REDD Programme.  All images used courtesy of license holder or through Creative Commons license.

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