Complex Forest Landscapes and Sociopolitical Drivers of Deforestation - The Interplay of Land-use Policies, Armed Conflict, and Human Displacement in Myanmar

Principal Investigator: 
Peter Leimgruber
Smithsonian Institution

This project responds directly to the solicitation for LCLUC studies in South Asia region by mapping Myanmars forest and deforestation over the past decade. In response to the LCLUC program goals, our research will also seek to understand human-nature interaction, specifically the relationship between deforestation and commercial plantation policies, armed conflict, and human displacement.

Myanmar is one of the most forested countries in Asia. In the past, the country had retained high levels of biodiversity and forest cover, partly due to its political and economic isolation. Since 2010, the political and economic reforms that have come with democratization have improved access to global markets and increased international aid, trade, and investment. The speed and magnitude of sociopolitical changes in the country make urgent the need for detailed remote-sensing-based mapping of different forest systems to provide a baseline for forest risk and forest vulnerability assessments. At the same time these drastic changes provide an opportunity to evaluate the impact of a range of sociopolitical factors on deforestation at broad geographical scales.

The proposed project is built on our previous studies of global forest and forest change characterization and a decades worth of remote sensing and conservation projects in Myanmar. Our study showed in 2004, that the country retained much of its forest cover, and that forests had declined by 0.3% annually between 1990 and 2000. Our recent work demonstrates that deforestation rates may have doubled in the past decade, with most of the forest losses occurring in intact, closed-canopy forests. However, different types of forest have unique economic and conservation values, and they are being threatened at various degrees. Existing forest change products did not differentiate the different types of forest loss, nor did they differentiate between natural forest and plantations.

The overall goal of the project is to study forest-cover and land-use change in Myanmar, to understand the drivers of deforestation of different forest types, especially in Myanmar's border regions, and to advance forest monitoring in the South Asia region. Our specific objectives are to: 1.Map the different types of forests across Myanmar circa 2016 to provide a baseline of forest condition by combining passive (optical) and active (radar) remote sensing data to discriminate natural forests from plantations; 2.Incorporate extensive reference data and multiple remote sensing datasets (including: Landsat, Sentinel-2, PALSAR, UAV images) to map annual tree cover and deforestation Myanmar between 2000 and 2018; 3.Examine the impact of agricultural policies, armed conflicts, and human migration on forest-cover change in Myanmar, as well as the feedback of deforestation on human displacement.
We will firstly combine the optical and active remote sensing data to classify major forest types and plantation types. Secondly we will produce 18 years of annual forest cover dataset. And lastly we will produce annual forest-change maps between 2000 and 2018. The calibration and accuracy assessment of both parts of the project will rely on high resolution satellite or unmanned aerial vehicle imagery and extensive ground truth carried out in collaboration with our local partners in Myanmar.

Our proposed research will provide free access to the final products through the Global Land Cover Facility, and continue our collaboration with EcoDev to provide training and data directly to Myanmars CSOs and NGOs committed to sustainable forest governance. The proposed project will help us understand how sociopolitical forces interact with diverse forest landscapes within the context of Myanmars society, and it will also provide a scientific foundation for assessing forest vulnerability and facilitating sustainable forest governance.