Making forest data fair and open
The risks of exploiting open forest data are amplified by the characteristics of how forests are measured and who performs the measurement. Generating long-term data on forest health and change involves physically measuring and identifying millions of trees. This means establishing, maintaining and revisiting plots, and keeping records indefinitely. Trees are long-lived organisms, so forests require decades of monitoring to properly infer changes. Sustaining local observations for decades requires a deep, long-term commitment to the unique but changing combinations of people, institutions, regulations, interests, and relationships that characterize each forest site. The challenge is heightened by the high biodiversity of tropical forests. Measuring a single hectare of Amazon rainforest involves collecting and identifying up to ten times the number of tree species found in all of the UK’s 24 million hectares. There are very few people with the skills to do it.
Long-term measurements of tropical forest data not only require effort and skill, but also often involve risk and depend on some of the most disadvantaged actors in the global scientific community. Many forest workers (researchers, technicians, students, field assistants and local communities) lack basic job security, let alone a career plan, despite the long-term dedication that monitoring forests requires. forests. In addition, many rainforest workers may endure dangerous field conditions, with threats such as kidnapping, armed insurgents, drug traffickers, land grabbers, infectious diseases, snake bites, floods, fires, dangerous transport and gender-based violence. Besides these personal dangers, tropical scientists often lack the basic resources to measure and maintain their forest plots, let alone develop their research groups.8.
In contrast to the experiences of those monitoring forests in the field, consider the context of satellite and aircraft measurements, which require ground data for validation. Space forestry missions are expensive but are financed by public or private capital. Once in orbit, they transmit data to analysts “for free”. It requires relatively few people to support, and although the work of analysts is highly skilled, it entails little professional and physical risk and lacks commitment to the location. Fieldwork in the forest is less capital-intensive, but requires sustained investment, is intensely human, and involves substantial costs and risks. There are no automated collection stations to help identify and measure trees, so without the long-term dedication of many forest workers, data collection simply stops.
The risks and costs of acquiring and maintaining forest data on the ground are consistently overlooked, ignored, or viewed as externalities to be borne by forest workers themselves. This is particularly problematic because the countries with the most tropical forests are among those least able to invest in science and development (Fig. 1, Supplementary Fig. 1). For example, monitoring the carbon balance of intact tropical rainforests has been estimated at US$7 million per year.12, easily surpassing current support. By contrast, the United States alone spends more than $90 million annually on its national forest inventory.13. Thus, much tropical forest data is collected by skilled people working with minimal funding, under difficult conditions and facing other constraints, including complex layers of rules, agreements and research permits. Given these huge disparities, it is hardly reasonable to expect this production to be served on a plate open to the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most vocal proponents of opening data on tropical and subtropical forests are often not those who actually measure and monitor them. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries include powerful publishers (usually with commercial interests), technology agencies and companies (often with commercial or political interests), and highly skilled computer-savvy analysts wishing to integrate observational data from the Earth to forest data (naturally with a professional interest) . Relatively few of these institutions and people are based in tropical and subtropical regions. Even fewer are also data creators.
Thus, for many data creators, the current meaning of making tropical forest data “open” is to transfer the hard-earned results of their work to more privileged individuals and institutions, and to further lose the limited control they have on their professional life. Power is shifting from initiators to public agencies, private companies and data scientists, mainly in the North.