The GIS Monitoring System: A Bridge Between the Forest and the Office

A snapshot of a bit of the ecological corridor that stretches throughout Los Santos province
Imagen de una parte del corredor ecológico que se extiende por toda la provincia de Los Santos

80 kilometers long, with two 10 kilometer buffer zones on each side. That means approximately 1600 kilometers of land, nearly 1000 square miles. This is the goal of Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero: establishing an ecological corridor that stretches across the Los Santos province. This corridor collects isolated patches of forest as it grows, connecting them with its inventory of other formerly isolated patches. It more or less follows along the Oria river watershed, connecting it with Cerro Hoya national park and La Tronosa forest reserve. At the end, FPEA’s ultimate goal is an expansive reforested corridor for biodiversity purposes, socioeconomic purposes, and environmental purposes.

Noble as is, this goal needs help. Its fulfillment seeks the help of an effective monitoring system, sheerly because of the large area of land under attention, thus meaning the large amounts of data that comes with planting new trees, tending to already planted trees, and taking in the data of the growth of the trees throughout time.

Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero has taken this matter into their own hands. FPEA utilizes the GIS monitoring system (GIS stands for Geographic Information System) as a digital mapping system in order to wholly and accurately harvest the massive amounts of data from the reforested trees in this expansive corridor. Without a doubt, this is one of the most defining features of Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero from the other non profits in Panama.

Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero is an organization that focuses on “strategic” reforestation; this is a measure that is rare to find in most reforestation initiatives around the globe. Whereas other programs involve reforestation and then no real follow-up in terms of monitoring, FPEA really emphasizes the importance of their monitoring system of 1) carefully and strategically planting trees in terms of location, and 2) refusing to leave the tree to fate by tending to it and monitoring it with the GIS system.

They monitor each and every tree on a biannual basis. The reforestation season is in the rainy season, which is from June to September, approximately. The first monitoring occurs in the dry season, sometime between November and December. Additionally, a second monitoring occurs right before the rainy season in May: the purpose of this second monitoring is to note how many trees need to be replanted. The trees that died off are then replaced.

This system guarantees the success of the corridor, since the future of the forests are carefully tended to.

ESRI is an international supplier of GIS software, web GIS, and geodatabase management applications. Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero works closely with ESRI Panama, using all the ArcGIS platforms like Collector and Survey123. A submetric GPS, a navigation feature that is a component of the GIS system, is connected to “cards” of the trees, which holds information about the tree. The card entails the following: date of planting, collaborator (data collector), owner of the plot, tree species, health status of the tree, height, crown width, and most importantly, the georeference of the point captured. Georeferencing simply means taking a digital image (either an airphoto, a picture of a geographic map, or a picture of a topographic map), and adding geographic information to the image so that the GIS system can locate the tree in its real world location in the system.

Roxana Garcia was a student of Environmental Biology who served as a volunteer for FPEA, contributing to a reforestation team that works closely with the ESRI GIS monitoring system. Her work involved dispatching to the forested locations with all their equipment, starting from the early mornings. She is now an employee for FPEA, a program assistant who goes out to the field for monitoring and for updating web maps. In her own words, Roxana explains that, “I had very good experiences throughout the monitoring project and the most beneficial one for me as a participant in the Azuero Eco Foundation were: 1.) The successful completion of digital monitoring in the field. 2.) New knowledge in the area of GIS monitoring. 3.) Exploring different areas of the Azuero region.”

Roxana García con el equipo de monitoreo

Thus, Roxana’s experience as a volunteer working with the GIS monitoring system naturally led to her learning more about the system itself, but also more about the Azuero region. It is inevitable for someone who treks kilometers of forested lands monitoring young trees to not learn more and be more exposed to the region. This monitoring system is more than a task involving tracking down trees; it is a bridge between forest and office, between analysis and experience.

Information is key. The monitoring system streamlines the data analysis process. At the crux of this monitoring is the basic communication of the tree with the one who planted it; as Roxana delineates, “From the day of the collection of seeds, the future trees begin to be our new children and as such we must take care of them, and follow them in their growth, which we always look at with a view towards improving our actions for the benefit of all fauna that is part of our corridor.”

Innovation is also key. Just like how the submetric GPS aspect of the GIS system was one of the spearheads in the implementation of digital mapping/monitoring, there could be further streamlining and efficiency of this process. Roxana mentions that “ Our next step is to introduce drones so that we will be able to obtain new images, which will enable a new massive and more efficient monitoring.”

Práctica de vuelo por parte de Flying Labs a los colaboradores de la Fundación Pro Eco Azuero

In 2019, Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero won a grant with Panama Flying Labs, a substituent off of Technological University of Panama – with this grant, FPEA won a drone. With proper training and licensing for the respective monitoring team, drone monitoring would really catalyze the process, since georeferencing could be done without the individual visitation to each tree. One caveat is that these drones would only be able to work on trees that are at least three years of age, since trees younger would be too hard to detect as they are just saplings.

Yes, the GIS system is one of the hallmarks that distinguish FPEA from other non-governmental organizations with reforestation initiatives. However, in order to maintain this biannual monitoring, the team has to visit very remote locations all across the Los Santos province over vast distances. They have to transport seedlings by horse, climb steep hills etc.) Ironically, despite the relatively advanced nature of the GIS system in use, the actual execution of the monitoring process requires rather rudimentary and primitive work that can be cumbersome. It is a lot of work. With the help of drones, this process can be automated and therefore streamlined, making the job easier for the monitoring team, and in turn, accelerating the vision of Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero for robust, reforested parcels across the 80 kilometers.

Without a doubt, the GIS mapping system has already been of increasing help to FPEA and its cause; one can only imagine how increased innovation could lead to exponential growth of the organization, and more importantly, the exponential growth of trees in the Azuero region.

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