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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006 Supplement
DOI:10.5062/F47D2S31

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Enhancing Access to Forestry Information in Africa to Ensure Sustainable Forest Management

Margaret Sraku-Lartey
Forestry Research Institute of Ghana
P. O. Box UP63, UST, Kumasi, Ghana
mslartey@forig.org

Abstract

That access to and provision of high quality forest-related information is crucial to the sustainable management of the world's forest resources was by recognized by both the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), and seen as a priority for the implementation of Agenda 21 and the UNFF/IFF proposals for action. However, addressing this priority is a great challenge for developing countries, especially Africa, where significant investment in information and communication technologies (ICT) and information management strategies is urgently needed. This paper discusses one effort, Global Forest Information Service (GFIS), which is attempting to improve access to forestry information in Africa, and reviews the potential of using ICT to manage forestry information on the African continent. The impact of ICT in meeting the needs of researchers and other forest stakeholders, and on the quality of research in Africa, in particular, Ghana, is also discussed. Inadequacies and weaknesses in infrastructure, skills, linkages and finance are some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realize this potential. Achievements in creating partnerships on the African continent to improve skills and transfer knowledge about information management are also described.

Introduction

An international commitment to sustainable forest management was made in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on the Environment (UNCED) and subsequently pursued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF), Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) and the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). Forests play an important and crucial role in the preservation of the environment by mitigating climate change, conserving biological diversity and maintaining clean and reliable water resources. However, the continuing global forest crisis, which is resulting in acute degradation and deforestation, demands urgent and concerted action by governments, donors and forest-related agencies. The very existence of human beings depends on keeping forests alive. The international community recognizes the loss of forests as a major problem (Gondwe 2005), hence the increasing attention given to forest sustainability.

Africa's forest cover constitutes 17% of the world's forest resources and contains over 50,000 plant species (GEO 2000). The continent's dependence on its forests is linked to the crucial role forests play in many countries' economics in the provision of valuable timber and industrial materials as well as contributions to tourism, recreation and cottage industries. However, the forestry sector in the region is changing rapidly with the loss of natural forests. Deforestation is being propelled by lack of secure land and resource rights for forest people, illegal logging, lack of trade incentives, large-scale agriculture and other related practices.

To keep pace with these changes and in order to improve forest management efficiency, there is a need to keep current with the changes taking place within our forests today. This need calls for the mobilization of large volumes of information accessible to all the various stakeholders in the forestry sector.

Research plays a crucial role in helping to solve the problems that face the forestry sector. Therefore, attention has been given to forestry research activities as a means of generating new information to support the decision-making process and enable governments to make decisions that will help sustain the world's forests. However, the success of the research process is dependent on the quality and accessibility of information made available to the researcher. Modern information and communication technologies have made the task of providing relevant and high quality content to researchers considerably easier.

Role of ICT in Managing Information

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are rapidly transforming the way people learn, live and work. ICT provides a practical and enabling solution for improving the quality and quantity of information being generated. The advent of highly responsive information networks and the rapid development of the Internet and other channels of communication have presented a real opportunity for researchers around the world to access information on their desktops. Researchers are becoming more proactive in searching and managing information. Indeed, as has been pointed out by Ballantyne (2004), the worlds of information management, communication, publishing and research are undergoing a massive transformation with researchers becoming "specialists" at the click of a keyboard. According to him, researchers are now more able to connect to their peers, publish rapidly and disseminate their own work than ever before.

Recent estimates indicate that Internet usage in Africa, as of December 31st, 2005, was 22,737,500, which represents 2.2% of world Internet usage. The period between 2000 and 2005 saw significant growth in Internet usage, more than 400% (Internet World Stats 2006). New trends in information management make the use of the Internet a preferred medium for disseminating and accessing information. Despite numerous problems using the Internet in Africa, it has become a preferred medium for many researchers.

Enhancing Access to Forestry Information in Africa

Scientific knowledge generated through research is key to sound forest policy formulation and sustainable forest management. Yet forestry research, especially in Africa, faces tremendous challenges due mainly to inadequate institutional capacities, and human and financial resources for research (Yapi 2004). Making the forestry information generated through research accessible is also a great challenge. So much information is being generated in diverse areas of forestry that great skill is needed to manage such information effectively. Efforts are being made under several initiatives to mobilize forestry information in order to make it accessible.

IUFRO, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, as a major player in forestry research activities, initiated the Global Forest Information Service (GFIS) as one project to provide high quality forest-related information, especially information available through electronic media (Yapi 2004). In order to allow African forestry research institutions to actively participate in this global information service, the GFIS Africa project was begun in 2000 by setting up five GFIS nodes in Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Gabon, with sponsorship from the European Commission. These five nodes, now referred to as service centres, were the Institut Senegalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (EFRI), the Forest Research Centre of Zimbabwe (FRC-Z) and the Association pour le Développement de l'Information Environnementale (ADIE). Located in different climatic and ecological zones, these centres were given the responsibility to mobilize information from countries within their catchment zones.

All five service centres were equipped with the necessary hardware and software with training provided for each centre's personnel. After the initial project, it was expected that the service centres would extend services to other countries and institutions, linking them to the network.

Building the capacities of information managers, webmasters and data entry personnel was one of the major tasks of the project and given high priority. Training was conducted in several phases and formats. During the training periods, defined roles and responsibilities were identified and agreed upon for the different players. The training encouraged team building, sharing ideas and a sense of ownership. For the exchange and integration of information from different countries to be effective, the use of standards such as Dublin core, XML and other metadata standards was required. Participants were therefore introduced to these standards.

One of the greatest challenges for the project was the creation of international partnerships among African countries with multicultural and multilingual characteristics. It was expected that the GFIS database would eventually be multilingual, not only meeting the needs of different language groups, but having the capacity to be converted from one language to another.

Impact of These Initiatives

The GFIS project has had several impacts on the personnel, the institutions involved in the project and on the users of the information. Most have felt that projects such as GFIS are useful for enhancing access to forestry information in developing countries.

  1. One impact of GFIS is the creation of knowledge centres and knowledge teams in the five countries with the responsibility of updating GFIS, as well as hiring and training new personnel. This effort has led to the sharing of ideas for best practices and data from one organization to another within and between countries that has helped to keep the project alive, especially for Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, through personal interaction, sharing of events and email communication. The institutions have also become centres of excellence for the development of knowledge and skills, managing and enhancing forestry databases and facilitating knowledge flow to relevant users.

  2. Personnel have acquired information management skills that are useful not only to the project, but also to the institutions where they work.

  3. Efforts at enhancing access to information are being made mainly in an effort to sustain the world's forests resources and to help eradicate poverty. Knowledge adds value to a business through its products, processes and people (Davis and Botkin 1994). Therefore, the availability of forestry information to researchers will facilitate and improve the research process to the extent that policy makers can use the results of research for decisions to help ensure the sustainability of the world's forest resources.

One very positive impact has been the awareness created by GFIS about the importance of information and its effect on research results. Many researchers have used the GFIS database at one time or another for retrieving information for a variety of uses such as proposal writing, publishing scientific articles, and literature reviews. The real benefits and impacts will be felt when effective decisions are the result of available information from a reliable source such as the GFIS database.

Challenges

Information Management Strategies

The increasing demand for online facilities for forest information in Africa is creating challenges in determining how to organize these electronic systems efficiently and effectively. Some inexpensive approaches can contribute to a vibrant and cost-effective system of information management. For example, continuous updating of the database is essential. Updating must be done on a regular basis and accomplished in a culture of openness. Active dissemination of existing information makes access to information better, quicker and cheaper. Service centres have been encouraged to use multiple formats for harvesting data so that as much information as possible can be covered. Applying metadata standards such as Dublin core and using standard thesauri are useful in developing a high quality database.

Geographical Location

Information management personnel involved in this project are located in different parts of the African continent and, even though it is possible to communicate using email, for a great part of the time, personnel work independently. From time to time professionals from all the service centres meet together to share ideas, best practices and to keep up the momentum that characterized the inception of the project.

Human Resources

The information management skills of personnel in the different service centres vary. These differences greatly affect the level of participation by personnel and the quality of information provided by the service centres. For this reason, there is a clear need to upgrade the skills of staff at the various centres on a continuous basis. After training, staff are expected to transfer their acquired skills to new partners. Many of the service centres cannot afford the high costs of continued training programmes. However, attempts are being made to train new partners and in a few countries (Ghana, Kenya and Senegal) training within the catchment area has been organized with support from IUFRO.

Working on a project such as GFIS requires time that may sometimes conflict with the normal working hours of personnel in the various institutions. The Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, FORIG, has solved this problem by integrating GFIS activities into the normal working schedules of information personnel.

Sustainability of the GFIS Project

Many projects fail because they may be difficult to sustain after the cycle of the project has ended. Some personnel who were initially trained move to other positions that affects the progress of the project considerably. New staff have to be appointed and trained resulting in high costs and slowing down the project. The GFIS Africa project officially ended in 2004, but the project was sustained by maintaining expensive subscriptions to the Internet. Other challenges that had to be addressed included inadequate network infrastructure (high Internet connection fees and weak links), general infrastructure problems (unreliable power), inadequate financial support especially after the end of the project period, poor information retrieval skills among users, and inadequate linkages with partner organizations.

Conclusions

In spite of the limitations and weaknesses highlighted, GFIS has become a useful source of information for all stakeholders in Africa and every effort must be made to sustain it.

References

Ballantyne, P. 2004. Enhancing access to scientific information: how INASP seeks to strengthen the scientific information and publishing capacities of developing countries. IAALD Quarterly Bulletin XLIX 3/4:84-8.

Davis, S. and Botkin J. 1994. The Coming of Knowledge-Based Business. Harvard Business Review 72(5):165-170.

GEO 2000: Global Environmental Outlook 2000. 1999. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). London: Earthscan Publications Ltd. [Online] Available: http://www.unep.org/geo2000/ov-e/index.htm [May 18, 2006].

Gondwe G. F. 2005. Assessing deforestation: Proximate causes and their contribution to tree cover change in off-reserve areas of Goaso, Ghana. Enchede: International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, ITC.

Internet World Stats. [Online]. Available: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm)[May 18, 2006].

United Nations Forum on Forests. 2006. About UNFF: History and milestones of global forest policy. [Online]. Available: http://www.un.org/esa/forests/about-history.html [May 18, 2006].

Yapi, A. M. 2004. GFIS Africa welcoming address. [Online]. Available: {http://www.docstoc.com/docs/125941211/yapi-welcome} [May 18, 2006].

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