Conservation International, NASA and the Liberian Government through its Environmental Protection Agency use Earth Observations to Quantify Nature’s Economic Value

March 11, 2021

Mapping Effort will serve as model for countries to account for nature’s benefits

Monrovia, Liberia (March 11, 2021) –  For the first time, Liberia’s government has mapped the country’s natural assets and how they have changed over time. These “Ecosystem Extent Maps” -- mean that Liberia will be positioned to more accurately measure the economic value of its nature. The maps are the result of a joint initiative between Conservation International, NASA and the Government of Liberia to pilot an innovative, low-cost, replicable approach to map ecosystems.

With an improved understanding of the country’s ecosystems, Conservation International scientists will work with the government of Liberia  to quantify the value of the available natural resources and the services they provide to people. The  overall goal is to help countries measure their natural capital, and integrate its value in planning and decision-making to ensure long-term sustainability for biodiversity and human well-being.

The maps are a critical step in Liberia’s effort to implement  “Ecosystem Accounts” following the United Nations System of Economic Environmental Accounting (SEEA) Ecosystem Accounting (EA),  a standard framework that helps put natural capital at the forefront of economic decision-making. The system aims to help countries account for the benefits that ecosystems bring economies and livelihoods.

The mapping initiative in Liberia, and eventually, in other countries in Africa, supports the goals of the Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa (GDSA), a commitment made by 18 African countries to invest in a new model of development that takes into account the economic value of the continent’s natural resources.

“The maps enable the government to determine the true extent of Liberia’s forests, mangroves and freshwater ecosystems, each of which provides the economy and communities with services essential for livelihoods and  long-term economic resilience,” said Daniel Juhn, Conservation International Vice President of the Moore Center for Science. “With this effort, the Liberian government is leading the way regionally in assessing nature’s values, something that is needed to inform planning, sustainable development and conservation efforts in-country and across Africa.”

According to The World Bank,  natural capital is estimated to be nearly half  (47%) of the total wealth in low income countries. This is likely to be an underestimate especially in countries like Liberia, home to mangroves and rainforests including the largest area of remaining Upper Guinean rainforests in West Africa.

Combined, the value of these landscapes and the biodiversity within them is estimated to be incredibly high, and soon Conservation International scientists and the Liberian government will use the new maps to further quantify nature’s benefits to people in terms of the services they provide, the carbon they store and the biodiversity they house. The struggle, until now, has been in the need to develop an accurate picture of the landscape and NASA’s satellites have enabled this to happen.   

Here’s how the final maps were produced:

  1. NASA researchers used remote-sensing data generated by the agency’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites and the Google Earth Engine (GEE) to map Liberia’s land cover. The cloud technology helps enable rapid processing of large amounts of data at the national scale with a repeatable machine learning methodology.  This approach was shared with the Liberian government to continue mapping future land cover change. Land cover mapping was supported by ground-truthing and calibration provided by Conservation International scientists collecting field data and cutting-edge drone transects.
  2. Conservation International scientists created a map of potential ecosystem types using a relatively novel and advanced technique called Generalized Dissimilarity Modeling which incorporated plant species records compiled by the Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) to distinguish ecosystems across Liberia – a map with a level of detail that previously did not exist.
  3. Since this potential ecosystem classification does not show where ecosystems have been recently converted (e.g., due to deforestation) or degraded, in step three, the potential distribution of ecosystems and actual land cover were combined to produce a time series of maps that shows annual changes in the extent of ecosystems from 2000-2018.

“This work demonstrates the utility of NASA Earth observations for informing conservation and the power of partnership to improve life on Earth. Nature provides essential services on which the lives and livelihoods of people across the globe are dependent. Our partnership has created a systematic means of quantifying this value. The methodology is driven by stakeholder demand and involvement to ensure the product meets decision making needs and will be sustainably transferred to the end user,” said Keith Gaddis, NASA ESD Program Manager for the Biological Diversity and Ecological Forecasting programs.

“An adequate measure of a country’s natural resources, in the form of its natural capital wealth can supplement measures such as GDP, by signaling the support of natural capital to the country’s economic  growth and its sustainability over the long term,” said Rosimeiry Portela, senior director and ecological economist at Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science. “The knowledge can greatly impact policymaking, investment  and development initiatives, particularly in Liberia which is growing and developing at an impressive pace.”

“The Government of Liberia sees this initiative as an integral part of a national effort to developd Liberia’s national ecosystem accounting. This shall go a far way of informing policy makers in making decisions that have strong scientific background,” said Professor Wilson K. Tarpeh, Executive Director and CEO of the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency.

Conservation International is serving as Secretariat for the GDSA. The role includes providing technical assistance that can help national signatories make smart sustainable development investments that have the potential to guide the continent toward a transition to a green economy that will conserve nature, slow climate change and bring long-term benefits to people.

Liberia’s Ecosystem Extent Maps and natural capital accounting products will be the first produced by the three-year NASA and Conservation International partnership. They will serve as a model for future mapping initiatives, including in Gabon and Botswana.

About Conservation International
Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

About NASA
NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet. Follow NASA’s Earth research on our website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.