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Summer 2006

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GIS Hero Susan Minnemeyer Works for Frontier Forest Conservation

GIS HeroThis article is part of an ongoing series honoring individuals who have made a difference in the world by applying a GIS solution to challenges or needs within conservation or their communities. Since these unique individuals have been selected for their innovations or special achievements in a particular field, the series is appropriately named GIS Heroes. Esri recognizes Susan Minnemeyer as a GIS hero. Minnemeyer is the GIS laboratory manager for Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Since joining WRI in 1999, Minnemeyer has coordinated and worked on GIS projects that have served to promote the protection and conservation of forests around the planet.

Frontier forests are the world's remaining large intact natural forest ecosystems—undisturbed and large enough to maintain all of their biodiversity. Created by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Global Forest Watch (GFW) has a mission to ensure these forests are sustainably managed. GFW geographic data has come into great demand because of its ability to support understanding and proactive conservation lobbying.

  Susan Minnemeyer
Susan Minnemeyer

A graduate of Duke University School of Environmental Studies, Susan Minnemeyer came to GFW with expertise in conservation biology and landscape ecology. Her conservation projects inevitably led her to use geospatial technologies, so she added GIS technology, remote sensing, environmental monitoring with satellite imagery, and building local mapping capacity to her abilities. Says Minnemeyer, "I am interested in big picture global environment issues. I am, however, also interested in practical applications. GIS allows people to communicate scientific information and results in an arresting way."

Minnemeyer's earliest projects with GFW focused on logging operations in Africa's Cameroon, a country that has had a history of illegal logging.

When Minnemeyer began working in Cameroon, most logging concession data was not shared and certainly not intended for public use. To further impede data collection, the various organizations working on environmental issues in the area lacked a sense of openness and trust among themselves. The goal of the data project was to move logging information into the public domain. This makes it more difficult for logging companies to carry out illegal logging or shady business practices.

GFW's goal was to produce an interactive atlas to share all types of information on the management of Cameroon's forests, such as logging concessions, protected areas, forest reserves, and quantity of timber production. Moving all types of information about forests into the public domain increases transparency and accountability, giving governments and conservation groups evidence of illicit operations.

To get the needed data, GFW developed relationships with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Minnemeyer and her team worked with the Limbé Botanical and Zoological Gardens to develop the technology to digitize logging roads from Landsat satellite imagery. They created a database of logging roads for the forested zone of the country, including data for 40,000 kilometers of logging roads and satellite imagery, to track road development over time. The NGO Cameroon Environmental Watch worked with GFW to create digitized national topographic maps, which are used to define the boundaries of logging concessions and other managed forest areas. Using GIS, the team identified many cases where roads had been built in what appeared to be illegal areas. This information was made publicly available through the distribution of the data on 2,000 CD-ROMs.

Getting organizations to work together requires building bridges of common vision and good communication. Trust is built on solutions that work. The ultimate goal for GFW is to create a solid foundation so that the technology and the ability to maintain the databases will continue whether or not GFW remains working in that area.

  click to enlarge
Global Landcover (GLC 2000) vegetation data for Cameroon forest stratification data, developed from aerial photography.

Minnemeyer has twice led GIS training sessions in Yaoundé for Cameroon Environmental Watch. She relates her first teaching experience: "We went to Cameroon in 2000 to give an ArcView training class. We specifically told the organization that we would train 2 to 4 people on how to use ArcView. When we arrived, 10 people had signed up to take the course. The organization had arranged a party, complete with speeches, painted banners, and video taping to celebrate the opening of our GIS training. Group photos were taken, and a graduation was given when the training was finished. The enthusiasm completely took me aback. I used the instructor-led training course and adapted it by using local logging concession datasets to give examples of polygons. Everything was based on Cameroonian data. People stayed to practice until 10 and 11 o'clock every night."

Eventually, GFW assigned a Cameroon-based GIS trainer, Lawrence Nsoyuni. He supports a local network of GIS users and was able to get GIS software for local NGO partners through an Esri grant. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of organizations that have been providing the much-needed data.

An upswing in the project came when GFW assigned a project manager to Cameroon, Jacqueline Van de Pol, who became instrumental in providing an ongoing presence and creating links with the local community. She worked directly with the government, logging companies, and local NGOs and was able to obtain multistakeholder input into the data.

People who work on global issues find that projects located thousands of miles apart somehow manage to converge. While the Cameroon project was evolving, Minnemeyer had begun working with partners on a forestry atlas for Russia. The process for creating an atlas for Russia had been developed by working on an atlas for Canada.

Minnemeyer took these processes back to Cameroon to help Van de Pol plan an atlas for Cameroon. Together they built draft data as a basis for pitching the idea. Van de Pol was able to show the draft data to various groups and obtain their buy-in. She also was able to obtain the government's authorization, which gave the data official legal status. Their research helped define boundaries that became government-recognized boundaries.

"When you work with GIS, you learn so much from working with other people," Minnemeyer notes. "This atlas for Cameroon could not have happened without this project in Canada for which our Russian partners provided help. In Cameroon, we are using methods and tools we originally learned from working in Russia. Those efforts led us to begin working on atlases for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo."

Because of the amount and types of geographic data demanded, Minnemeyer and a crew of project managers developed an interactive geographic data portal, which went live in 2004. The one-stop-shop portal is a project developed in partnership with the University of Missouri, which provides technological support and servers. The portal is built on ArcGIS architecture and includes ArcSDE to manage and access the data and ArcIMS software. The portal provides the links and Internet map server architecture, which allow users to interact with the data.

Partners post their databases on the GFW Web site ( Data Explorer section. Data Explorer offers nine datasets for Cameroon, and the full data CD also includes published maps and ArcGIS projects. GFW will make updates available as they become publishable with the first update expected in July 2006.

In partnership with the Brazilian NGO Imazon (the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment), GFW published the report Human Pressure on the Brazilian Amazon Forests. The report, released in March 2006, is available on CD-ROM and via the GFW portal. It provides a starting point for tracking the speed at which human pressure is spreading in the Brazilian Amazon.

Minnemeyer is tireless in her efforts to describe the state of the forests and to provide information on logging and the companies operating in these regions. Her passion for conservation issues, accomplishments in getting communities to work together, and skill in applying GIS technology to a central need make her an important GIS Hero.

More Information

For more information, contact Susan Minnemeyer (e-mail: or visit the Global Forest Watch Web site at

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