Various biodiversity hotspots across the globe hold a major risk of degradation from heavy deforestation activity, and until recently, few official records detailed how much of our forests were being lost annually. While the major culprits of deforestation are well-known, accurate real-time monitoring of deforestation was previously impossible due to the large scale of this issue. Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online data visualization platform, solved this problem by enabling users to view deforestation through a combination of cutting-edge algorithms linked to satellite technology and cloud computing.

Launched in 1997 by the World Resources Institute, GFW began its pilot monitoring program in four heavily affected countries: Cameroon, Canada, Gabon and Indonesia. By 2006, GFW had partnered with Greenpeace to create the first global map of intact forest landscapes, plus nation-specific interactive forest cover maps with ESRI’s ArcGIS Server software.

The current GFW online platform was launched in 2014, compiling almost two decades of forest monitoring data. The interactive interface is free to anyone with access to the internet and continues to evolve. The updated platform leverages advances in satellite imagery to provide users with the data to fight deforestation at home and beyond. Users have the option to set alerts on forest loss, view data on commodity production, and monitor carbon emissions in conjunction with forest cover loss.

In addition to exponentially increasing data accessibility, GFW has been a “game-changer” in using big data to monitor the world’s forests through precise identification of land clearing activity, says Rebecca Runting of the University of Melbourne. By granting a level of transparency to such operations, real-time regulation of forest conservation is not only possible, but much easier than attempting to locate offenders after the fact.

With the ability to monitor and manage forests in near real-time, GFW is now being used by a variety of actors, from conservation ecologists to businesses looking to source sustainable products. GFW Pro was launched in 2019 to meet the demands of the latter, providing an interface centred around agricultural supply chains and their environmental impacts. With growing consumer awareness surrounding the climate crisis and sustainability issues, it is fair to assume that a tool such as this will be met with high demand as business models shift to incorporate sustainable operations.

In addition to more conventional beneficiaries of digital technologies, GFW has been increasingly deployed in activism and land defence action. For example, GFW led an initiative amongst 36 Indigenous communities within the Peruvian Amazon in which satellite and monitoring mechanisms were deployed to help elected land defenders monitor forest loss on their mobile devices. Initiatives such as these, along with market-driven advocacy, mark a positive turning point in conservation efforts. GFW is an example of a new generation of activism-oriented, data-driven environmental conservation technologies.


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Schneider, B., & Olman, L. (2020). The geopolitics of environmental global mapping services: an analysis of Global Forest Watch. In A Research Agenda for Environmental Geopolitics. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Photo by Courtenay Crane.