Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006 Supplement
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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