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Land cover assessment and monitoring of its dynamics are essential requirements for the sustainable management of natural resources, environmental protection, food security, humanitarian programmes as well as core data for monitoring and modelling. Land cover data are therefore fundamental in fulfilling the mandates of many United Nations, international and national institutions and programmes.

land cover change and ecosystems Despite the recognition of such importance, current users of land cover data still lack access to sufficient reliable or comparable baseline land cover data. These data are essential to tackle the increasing concerns in regards to food security, environmental degradation, and climate change. In particular land cover data is required to:
  • Assess and model the impacts of climate change;
  • Monitor biodiversity and providing timely and reliable information on land cover changes;
  • Monitor desert fringes and identifying areas threatened with severe land degradation (e.g. deforestation, overgrazing, diversion of water resources, etc.);
  • Monitor and assess the extent of natural disasters (e.g. drought, floods, wildfires);
  • Assess vegetation cover, monitoring its development and providing timely inputs to regional food security early warning systems;
  • Monitor large scale deforestation, changes in wetlands, and areas of cultivated land, and providing inputs to the primary net productivity models and the models for quantification of carbon sinks and sources;
  • Rational land use planning based on agro-ecological zoning in order to support sustainable intensification of agricultural production, and Sustainable management of land and water resources and environmental protection.

Concerns and recommendations for coordinated, systematic and harmonized collection and assessment of data on land cover and environmental conditions, especially for monitoring of the environment, have been raised by many national governments and international conventions and treaties:
  • The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) of Rio de Janeiro (1992), Agenda 21;
  • the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, in 2002;
  • the Convention on Biological Diversity;
  • the Group on Earth Observations (GEO);
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC);
  • the European Commission INSPIRE Directive;
  • the declarations of Artimino, Dakar and Quito.

These are all examples of the broad stakeholder need for a harmonized land cover mapping effort.

In 2004 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with the financial and technical support of the Government of Italy through the Cooperazione Italiana and the Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare (IAO), created the Global Land Cover Network (GLCN) with the specific aim to answer the request of stakeholders.

Specifically the objectives of the initiative are to establish a global collaboration for developing a fully harmonized approach to make the required reliable and comparable land cover and land cover change data accessible to local, national and international initiatives. In particular, GLCN is intended to support the stakeholder community in developing countries that have difficulty in producing and releasing reliable, consistent and updated information.

GLCN is based on the success of the Africover project which was established in response to a number of national requests for assistance in the development of reliable and georeferred information on natural resources. These data are needed for: early warning; food security; agriculture; disaster prevention and management; forest and rangeland monitoring; environmental planning; watershed catchments management; statistics on natural resources; biodiversity studies, and climate change modelling.

The key success to the Africover initiative is the development of the Multipurpose Africover Database for the Environmental Resources (MADE) which can be accessed by all stakeholders and users. This is produced at a scale of 1:200 000 (and at 1:100 000 for small countries and specific areas) and contains digital georeferenced databases with geodetic homogeneous referential, toponyms, roads and hydrography data.

Africover has greatly reinforced national and subregional capacities for the establishment, update and use of land cover maps and spatial data bases. This has ensured an operational approach and the sustainability of the initiative. The Africover-East Africa project had as an overall objective the improvement of the availability of reliable, timely and location-specific Land Cover information in the following ten countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. This represents an area of 9.5 million km2.

Food and Agriculture Organizations of UN United Nations Environment Programme Istituto Agronomico Oltremare (IAO) Italian Cooperation
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