Use of public Earth observation data for tracking progress in sustainable management of coastal forest ecosystems in Belize, Central America
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) no. 15 addresses the protection of terrestrial ecosystems and sustainable forest management, and Target 15.2 encourages countries to sustainably manage forests, and halt deforestation by 2020. SDG indicator 15.1.1 proposes tracking forest area as an indicator for achieving that SDG. Though mangrove forests represent only about 5% of Belize's overall forest cover, the critical ecosystem services they provide are recognized in the country's Forests Act, which regulates the modification of mangrove ecosystems. Preceding the SDGs, from 2008 to 2009, the Government of Belize piloted a complete moratorium on mangrove removal, building on the Forests Act. As Earth Observation (EO) systems provide a means to track effectiveness of Belize's management of its mangrove forests, this paper examines historic and recent changes in mangrove cover across all of Belize, applying statistical adjustments to rates of change derived from Landsat satellite data. Particular attention was paid to the country's only World Heritage Site, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS), where mangrove clearing was prohibited since the site's designation in December 1996. The data indicate that within the BBRRS, approximately 89 ha of mangroves were lost from 1996 to 2017, compared to the estimated loss of 2703 ha outside the BBRRS during the same period, and nationwide loss of almost 4100 ha from 1980 to 2017. Thus, compared to the mangroves outside of the BBRRS, the annual rate of mangrove loss within the BBRRS over the period 1996–2017 was merely 4.24 ha per year, versus 129.11 ha per year outside the BBRRS. Furthermore, almost 75% of the 1996–2017 mangrove loss outside the BBRRS were concentrated in three particular geographic zones associated with tourism infrastructure. It was also estimated that Belize's overall mangrove cover declined 5.4% over 36 years, from 76,250 ha in 1980 to 72,169 ha in 2017. In terms of its implications, in addition to contributing to SDG 15, this work also addresses SDG Target 14.2 regarding sustainable management of marine and coastal ecosystems. This study serves as a use case of how EO data can contribute to monitoring changes in baseline data and thus tracking of progress toward SDG Targets.