This story spotlights how the Forest Service is working with international partners to address climate change and promote the sustainable management of the world’s forests.
The forest canopy hangs overhead as a shadowy mass through the swirling mist, the tree trunks blanketed in moss and creeping vines. All around, the ferns and palms are alive with a symphony of chirping insects and bird songs. Somewhere high among the tangled vines and interlocking limbs, a macaw flaps its wings as it takes flight.
Tropical forests like the Costa Rican cloud forest provide benefits far beyond the forest’s edge. In addition to being rich in biodiversity, they are integral to the fight against climate change. They absorb billions of tons of carbon each year and produce much of the world’s oxygen. They are home to unique species of plants and animals that have led to breakthroughs in science and medicine. Yet these forests are shrinking at an alarming rate, as trees are being cleared to make way for agriculture, housing, industry and other uses.
When Randy Hamilton arrived in Costa Rica in 2015 as a Forest Service Climate Fellow, it was difficult to say how the country’s significant tropical forests were changing over time. While there were fragmented efforts to track forests, agriculture, and other kinds of land use, the country did not have a comprehensive national system for monitoring these changes.
“I arrived in Costa Rica expecting to help develop a system for tracking greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, but quickly recognized the need to work on something far more comprehensive,” said Hamilton. “I credit my local counterparts, who understood the need for a broader monitoring system to answer a variety of complex questions about Costa Rican forests and other land uses, and their interplay through time.”
For the next six years, Hamilton worked with and united local government authorities and partners, including from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, local universities, the Forest Service, and other organizations to establish a centralized system for monitoring Costa Rica’s changing landscapes.
The system, known in Spanish as SIMOCUTE, collects and integrates high-quality data on natural, agricultural, and biodiversity resources across the country. To support this system, Hamilton coordinated trainings for local Costa Ricans on using satellite imagery together with data collected from the field to assess the condition of tropical forests, other land uses, and ecosystems.
“SIMOCUTE is designed to help decision-makers manage tropical forests in a sustainable way that will reduce greenhouse emissions, benefitting the world as a whole,” said Hamilton.
Earlier this year, Hamilton wrapped up his support of Costa Rica’s land-use monitoring system. Shortly afterwards, SIMOCUTE was adopted by the Costa Rican government through an inter-ministerial decree, a key moment in the development of this integrated system.
Experts from across the government are now able to use the data to observe trends in land use, which will help answer questions related to forest and ecosystem health. The information is also helping researchers to explore the link between deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
The data can also provide key information for international initiatives like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, also known as REDD+, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
As Hamilton begins a similar effort in Fiji, he reflects on what made the team successful in Costa Rica.
“Establishing this monitoring system in Costa Rica was no small feat, but we were able to achieve it through a highly collaborative team effort,” said Hamilton. “I believe the Forest Service Climate Fellows model contributed to our success. The relatively long duration of the program gave us the time we needed to develop strong, long-term working relationships built on trust, as well as the resources to build knowledge and strengthen institutions. Through this program, my Costa Rican colleagues were empowered to take the reins of their monitoring system. We worked together to realize a shared vision of land monitoring in Costa Rica.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently recognized Hamilton and his colleagues for their joint efforts as “precisely the kind of collaboration and knowledge sharing across borders, public and private institutions that’s essential to effectively tackling the climate challenge and the climate crisis.”
To learn more about how the Forest Service is working with partners around the world to address climate change, visit the Forest Service’s website on international engagement.