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They say in Ghana that spirits inhabit the forests. That some groves are so sacred that only chiefs and kings can be buried there. That the culture and traditions of tribes and ethnic groups throughout the West African nation are tied inextricably to the trees.

Color photo of researcher at work in Ghana
Remote sensing scientist Francis Dwomoh doing field work at a degraded forest site in the Tain II Forest Reserve in west-central part of Ghana.

All that rings true with Francis Dwomoh, a remote sensing scientist at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and a native of Ghana.

Or, at least it did.

But now the forces of climate change and climate variability, national economics, and individual struggles for survival have decimated as much as 80 percent of Ghana’s forests. Dwomoh, in fact, witnessed that firsthand in work he did for the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, as well as his research at both South Dakota State University and the University of Oklahoma.

Now as part of the Land Change Monitoring, Assessment, and Projection (LCMAP) initiative at EROS, his unique perspective on forest dynamics is helping to reveal interesting evidence of conditional changes within tree-covered landscapes across the conterminous U.S. Beyond that, his important analysis of LCMAP Collection 1 annual products is contributing to scientific assessments of change across the country’s land surface.

In Ghana in particular, he developed a fascinating insight into that country’s real-world forest issues. He talked about that in this conversation.

You say that only 20 percent of forests in Ghana remain today. What happened to them?

“These kinds of changes were mainly driven by population growth and economic factors in that a lot of people rely on forest resources for various uses. The government relies on a lot of the revenue from timber exports. And, we’ve had very rapid population growth. When you have that, what it means is that you have to grow more food to feed the people, and that has led to more clearing of the forests for agriculture extension.”

Give us an example of how agriculture impacts the forests.

“One of the major economic avenues for Ghana as a country is to sell cocoa, which is the raw material for making chocolate around the world. A lot of people are into that. Traditionally, people have to pull down the forest in order to plant cocoa.”

How valuable are the forests for providing fuel needs?

“In big cities, you have most people using liquified petroleum gas, and very few people use electricity for heating and cooking. One, because it’s not really available all the time, and it’s also expensive. When you go more to the rural areas, where we have most of the people, it’s mainly wood fuel, either in the form of firewood or charcoal. So, that has also been a significant contribution to the decline in forest resources.”

Clearing forests for timber, agriculture, and fuel has impacted Ghana’s different cultural traditions?

“Yes. Forest land and forest resources play significant roles within the cultural and spiritual life of the people, to the extent that in certain localities, there are certain rituals and festivities that are only performed inside the forests. And, there are also certain things, some of those rituals, you only do them with certain kinds of either tree species or animal species that are only found in certain kinds of forests.”

Give us an example.

“For instance, if we are installing new chiefs or new kings in some localities, certain spiritual rites have to be performed within the forests. And they use particular tree species in order to do that. Again, there are places where, like very important people in the community, like the chiefs and the kings and the royalty, when they are dead, there are particular places where they are buried. So, in some communities where you go, all the forest around the place is gone, but you see what we call sacred groves. That’s where the chiefs and the kings, they are buried.”

So, it’s a link to your ceremonial traditions?

“Yes. The language that we speak, we use a lot of idioms, proverbs. Resources within the forests ... the trees, the animals ... all that are the bedrock for most of our proverbs and idioms that we use. They enrich the language that we use. So, forests are more or less closely linked to our social, economic ... and to the livelihood of the people and all that. So, it’s culturally very significant to the people.”

Color photo of Asukese forest reserve in Ghana
Asukese forest reserve in Ghana, degraded by fire during a drought in 2016.

So, the loss of forest significantly impacts the cultural traditions?

“Definitely. We talk about folk tales. Most of these are linked to forests and what we have in them. Like here, you talk about superheros and stuff. Back in Ghana, and most parts of West Africa, we also have folk tales and stories, and we talk about heroes ... the monster in the forest, spirits in the forest, the dwarfs and all that are all linked to the forest. So, when we are losing these forests, it means a loss to the people culturally because soon we talk to the newer generation about some of these things, and they’ll have no idea because everything is gone, and there’s no way to make reference to those.”

How are climate and logging having impacts on forests there?

“Ideally, a tropical forest like what we have in Ghana retains more moisture because the canopy is closed. So, it’s usually wetter, and it’s difficult to burn it. Now, when you start removing a lot of the trees, you are reducing the canopy, so you have more light, sunlight, coming in. You remove more trees, the tree debris that are left get dried up. They are fuels that are being accumulated. Now we have a lot of agriculture around these forests, and fire is the main tool that people use to clear their land. Fire can easily escape from these agricultural fields. And even sometimes, people use fire for hunting animals. These fires enter the forests, and it easily burns because the canopy is open.”

How do you use remote sensing to track all this?

“We are looking at the history, and the condition now, and it is only remote sensing technology that can be able to do that. If you are supposed to look at it historically to be able to track where and when things happened and what happened, and what has been the consequences since those events happened, it is only remote sensing technology that currently can do that. Without remote sensing, we would not be talking about it. It’s only technology that gives very, very viable information, and especially for larger areas, like we’re talking about the whole forest zone of Ghana.”

Has Landsat been an important part of that remote sensing effort?

“Yes, Landsat has been the launch pad for most of this research. I mean, Landsat has the capability to show us what is happening within the landscape at a scale that is relevant to the resource managers, and to the people who own the resources as well. So, we are able to track where this is happening on the landscape. But more importantly, if we should go back, like one of the research projects that I did, where we’re seeing a whole entire forest reserve lost within a period of say 30 years. Landsat is the only sensor that is able to provide that kind of data that we can track these changes at the scale that is relevant to the people, as well as providing historical context to these changes.”

Who benefits from the work you have done?

“We try to bring the decision makers in as much as we can. So, for some of my work I’ve done at various places, we’ve been able to show how vulnerable the forests have become to the extent that recently, we’ve seen forest reserves that were quite moist, and we’re not seeing fires all these years. But even as recent as 2016, we are seeing fires in these places. So, it tells them that previously we were dealing with threats from, say, selective logging, clearing for agriculture, and others. But now there are also emerging threats because the climate is changing. And if you look at the region, there are projections that there’s going to be more droughts, and in most places, temperatures are also going to rise. So, it tells the managers of these resources the threats they are facing, how they are evolving.”

You were at the University of Oklahoma before you came to EROS. What work were you doing there?

“We developed a forest monitoring system entirely based on Landsat data. So, we take thousands of the Landsat data, and we are able to track forest changes, either deforestation or forest degradation, and that is able to provide estimates of the changes that are occurring within the forests every single year. Now, that is quite important because Ghana has signed on to the United Nations’ climate initiatives, and with that, you should be able to account for changes in your forests, and how that translates into carbon that is threatening the stability of our climate.”

Are people in your homeland acting on the work you have been doing?

“Yes, I’m happy to say that. (His University of Oklahoma project) was funded by NASA. Our main stakeholders were mainly the Forestry Commission and other resource managers. The Forestry Commission showed a very keen interest in this project, and in fact we used that to already help them to submit some of these UN reports. And I’m happy to say, just late last September, that entire system was handed over to the Forestry Commission, and then the Center for Remote Sensing at the University of Ghana. And the idea is that they will continue to use the system to monitor Ghana’s forests, even into the future. And that’s something that is great, and that’s mainly from Landsat data.”

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