BCP Forest Inventory Team – proof that community forest monitoring works!

While the rest of the world is busy debating, the BCP Forest Inventory Team has got on with the job – the team proves that community forest monitoring works beyond a shadow of doubt.

By Leon-Jacques Theron

The Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) is a strict international standard that is the go to standard for most voluntary carbon market projects and BCP has just achieved verification under this standard as you may have seen from one of our previous blogs and newsletter.

One of the behind the scenes activities that is required for achieving VCS verification is quantifying and measuring carbon stocks in the baseline (the deforested state) and the project (the forest we are protecting) to ultimately determine how many carbon credits (or Verified Carbon Units as they are known formerly) the project will generate over the lifespan. Ultimately spatial and mathematical modelling is used to quantify the credit generation, but these models require very sound data on forest and non-forest carbon stocks.

So basically you have to go out and measure trees, lots of them, and lots of soil samples in deep soil pits, lots of fields and fallow fields with often irate farmers, and even slash and weigh grass samples. You also need to figure out if the models to estimate tree biomass are accurate and that means you have to measure, cut down and weigh some really big trees. Basically it is a lot of physical labour out in the hot sun and rain, not many people would enjoy it. It is sort of like visiting the game park for only a few days then it becomes downright hard work.

This quantification of forest carbon stocks in REDD is part of an ongoing debate at the UNFCCC, how to do it, who must do it, who must pay for it and so on. For some years now a group of people, notably the Kyoto: Think Globally, Act Locally (KTGAL) (http://www.communitycarbonforestry.org/) project spearheaded a community forest monitoring movement basically arguing that local people can monitor and measure their own forests and do it just as well as PhD qualified foreign consultants. I was fortunate to attend some of the group’s closing meetings to share some previous experiences in Zambia. I did not need much convincing that it was completely doable and was very glad to hear that BCP was also sold on community monitoring. There is just no better way of getting people to take ownership of forests and understand what REDD is all about. After all, after measuring plot 234 you know that the baseline has less trees and carbon than the project!

So while at the UNFCCC level it is still being debated how to do MRV, we started the LZRP on a shoestring, put the word out to the neighbouring community, we got about 15 interested people and trained them in the then very basic “camp” and got to do some plot sampling. We used this initial plot sample for a viability study and then a few months later kicked off the project. We got four guys from the original training – Pythias Sebente, Andrew Tembo, Collins Jere Kaoma and Christopher Wanga.  Elvin Muchimba, a relative of one of the original trainees made up the 5th team member. Biston Nkhoma was also a team member for a while. And so we set out to start more training and a major sampling campaign across the entire project area and reference area – well over a 100 000ha.

The team had maps, a GPS, field manuals, tape measures and an old Hilux. Bit by bit they sampled every corner of Rufunsa. We collected the datasheets and waypoints and the arduous task of entering data started. Plans were revised and error checks were done and some of the team members decided the job was not for them and moved on. Andrew Tembo took over as team leader. Bit by bit we accumulated a mountain of data – 186 plots on the conservancy alone including lots of soil pits. Still the end was not in sight and even more sampling had to be done in the reference area.

Fortunately, Wesley Roberts developed a fantastic sampling system using an app called Open Data Kit  on an Android smartphone that we were able to test and deploy in a very short amount of time. This meant no more paper sheets and much better quality control as the chances of errors are minimised and no more handwriting deciphering.

To break the monotony of plot sampling the team moved on to testing our allometric equation to convert DBH measurement to biomass that was developed by renowned Miombo ecologist Professor Emmanuel Chidumayo. We had to do a very un-REDD thing and had to cut down and weigh seven very big trees across a range of species. It took a week and some of the logs weighed close to 200 kg. We had to record the total mass of each tree, with and without leaves. Fortunately the data looked good and the big trees fitted the predicted mass of the model. The trees did not go to waste and were used to produce charcoal in our eco-charcoal project.

One box still needed ticking, the leakage area, it is remote and difficult to get too and it turned out to be teeming with poachers. Eventually the only way of sampling it was with a police and ZAWA escort. It took much longer than anticipated, but eventually we got the data.

The data collected had to be of really high quality, the VCS stipulates that for projects of our size there may be no more than a 5% error. This is no mean feat considering the field conditions, long distances walked to plots, rain and heat and the team usually spent 20 days or more in the field at a time. And then there is off course the data cleaning and number crunching that has to be in order as well! The big test was the VCS verification audit in December 2014. It took a long time to prepare for this, but we were all still pretty nervous when we all set out with the auditor, Francesca Feller, to review some of the plots and the methods.

After three nerve wracking days we were in the clear, there were no systematic errors, nor any great blunders bar one waypoint that was transcribed incorrectly. Fortunately Chris Wanga led us straight to the correct place without a GPS, how he knew exactly where the plot was is simply unbelievable.

In the beginning of April 2014, after a few reviews, we finally heard that we have passed the audit and that verification was imminent. In May 2014 the project was verified as the 1st REDD project in Africa that is VCS REDD verified and CCBA triple gold! The first REDD+ project in Zambia as well. And a handful of guys from local villages with no prior experience in forest monitoring, just their excellent local knowledge of the trees and the bush, proved that a community based team can meet the requirements of international standards. Thank you Pythias, Andrew, Collins, Christopher, Elvin and Biston for your amazing effort, you guys can be proud of what you achieved. We hope you will inspire many other Zambians to follow in your footsteps and be ambassadors for REDD.



PT1 –  Leon, Andrew, Chris and Elvin in the proxy area looking at what carbon is left over on a field

PT_2PT2  – Elvin Muchimba, the DNV Auditor, Chris Wanga and Andrew Tembo during the VCS Audit – no systematic errors found!

PT_3PT3 – Pythias Sebente and Wesley Roberts discussing the finer details of plot sampling

PT_4PT4 – Digging a soil pit – not an easy job

PT_5PT5 – The blue Hilux, not exactly the bat mobile

PT_6PT6 – Chris, Andrew,Collins and Elvin doing smartphone data capture

PT_7PT7 – Removing leaves from a branch for allometry testing…….it takes a while

PT_8PT8 – Weighing another branch

This blog is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of this blog are the sole responsibility of BCP and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.