Taking the pulse on biodiversity and environmental health: decision support tools, metrics and indicators

Measuring tree girth. Photo courtesy of Hillary Allison/UNEP-WCMC

Measuring tree girth. Photo courtesy of Hillary Allison/UNEP-WCMC

Without uniform standards for measurement and evaluation (metrics), and agreement on what to measure (indicators), it is hard to judge how things are progressing, particularly at the landscape scale. Metrics and indicators become particularly important when assessing long-term (and frequently costly) projects such as land restoration aimed at improving ecosystems and biodiversity. And they are crucial for looking at progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and similar global environmental goals.

A session of Tree Diversity Day 2014, organized by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at the 12th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP12), was dedicated to this very topic. The session’s three speakers described and discussed recently developed tools and best practices for taking the pulse on biodiversity and environmental health.


The Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) is a  tool that tool provides systematic and comparable assessments of ecosystem health. According to Tor-Gunnar Vågen, the framework applies GIS techniques combined with soil analyses to create digital maps that show trends over time and space. The tool can help land users, governments and conservation groups make better evidence-based decisions on land management as part of everyday policy and practice.

The LDSF was first tested in Mali, studies which provided the ‘proof of concept’ for the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS), said Vågen, Senior Scientist and head of the GeoScience lab at ICRAF. By combining ecological maps with socioeconomic data, LDSF can be used to understand social-ecological interactions and dynamics at the landscape scale.

The Landscapes Portal, an online site managed by Vagen’s lab, provides users with a platform for visualizing and uploading spatial data and maps. The portal was developed with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

Using the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework, Vågen and colleagues have established, for instance, that land degradation reduces food self-sufficiency.

“People in more eroded systems [with less soil organic carbon] are less likely to be able to produce their own food. Maps from the Nyando River basin in western Kenya show this clearly; here, farmers rely on off-farm income for their livelihood.” said Vagen. In Laikipia district, a wildlife-rich area of Kenya, researchers are able to discern the boundaries of conservancies simply by looking at land health maps for the area, he told the Tree Diversity Day audience.

The LDSF methodology is now being extended to the Western Ghats in India, the Mekong River basin ecosystem, and Sumatra in Indonesia. “We are implementing exactly the same methodology in all the areas. The intention is for LDSF to be used to map and monitor ecosystem health globally,” he said.

L-R: Tor-Gunner Vagen, Hillary Allison and Rhett Harrison, speakers on indicators and metrics for environmental health

L-R: Tor-Gunner Vagen, Hillary Allison and Rhett Harrison, speakers on indicators and metrics for environmental health

TESSA and BIP Indicator Toolkit

Hillary Allison discussed two important new tools for measuring ecological trends: TESSA, short for Toolkit for Ecosystem Services Site-Based Assessment, and BIP Indicator Toolkit, developed by the UNEP- World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and Biodiversity Indicators Partnership (BIP), in collaboration with partners such as Birdlife international.

Dr. Allison, Head of the Ecosystem Assessment Programme at UNEP-WCMC, said forest restoration has many far-reaching benefits.

“The replacement of forests which have been lost and the regeneration of degraded forests helps to tackle climate change, restore vital ecosystem services that support society and biodiversity, and can contribute to revitalised local economies through supporting sustainable agriculture and tourism,” she said.

The TESSA toolkit, explained Allison, specifically allows users to properly evaluate and decide on the best interventions for forest restoration before, during, and after implementation.

“TESSA can help you track progress in achieving targets related to 5 ecosystem services— climate, harvested wild goods, water, nature-based recreations and cultivated goods,” she said.

The BIP Indicator design process

The BIP Indicator design process

Besides facilitating low-cost data collection, another attractive feature of TESSA is its usability by both specialists and non-specialists—only simple mathematics and Excel competency is needed.

Indicators underpin the continuous process of monitoring. Allison explained how the BIP indicator toolkit guides practitioners in the design of good indicators for measuring the state of biodiversity and ecosystem health at various pointsof forest restoration programs. A successful indicator,she said, is one that is:

  • Scientifically valid
  • Based on available data over time
  • Responsive to change in the issue of interest
  • Easily understandable
  • Relevant to user’s needs, and
  • Actually used.

At the same session, Rhett Harrison (World Agroforestry Centre-ICRAF) defined success factors for forest restoration, emphasizing in particular, the need for a viable business plan and a focus on the livelihoods of forest- and forest-margin dwellers.

TESSA and BIP Indicator toolkits are free for download, complete with learning resources and user support. Applied widely, measuring progress on ecosystem restoration and biodiversity can become more facile and globally comparable than was possible in the past.

Download TESSA toolkit

Download BIP indicator toolkit

Visit the Landscape portal

Download presentations by:

Tor-Gunnar Vågen (ICRAF)

Hilary Allison (UNEP-WCMC)

Rhett Harrison (World Agroforestry Centre-ICRAF)

Find out more about the World Agroforestry Centre’s participation at CBD COP12

See photos from Tree Diversity Day 2014
Download Abstracts and speaker biographies

Other Tree Diversity Day presentations dealing with the topic of Indicators of forest genetic diversity, erosion and vulnerability, and genetic considerations in forest landscape restoration:
Forest Genetic Diversity: Building knowledge-implementing priorities – Linda Collette, FAO
Indicators of tree genetic diversity for monitoring status and trends of forest genetic resources and the effectiveness of ameliorative actions – Lars Graudal, World Agroforestry Centre
Assessing the success of forest and landscape restoration efforts – what do genetic diversity indicators tell us? – Riina Jalonen, Bioversity

Further reading

Graudal L et al. (2014). Global to local genetic diversity indicators of evolutionary potential in tree species within and outside forests. Forest Ecology and Management.

Bozzano M, Jalonen R, Thomas E, Boshier D, Gallo L, Cavers S, Bordács S, Smith P, Loo J. (2014). Genetic considerations in ecosystem restoration using native tree species. In: State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources – Thematic Study.

Related stories

Breathing life into degraded landscapes with trees: Restoration in Korea, South Africa and Ethiopia
Low genetic diversity hampers restoration efforts
Mapping, for the people, by the people
New X-ray technology to reveal the makeup of Africa soils: http://bit.ly/12a2o9m
United for soil health


Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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