Smartphones to Monitor Deforestation in Peru

Rainbow Falls Road in Kerikeri, New Zealand

Source: Photo by Marc St on Unsplash

Smartphones and other new technologies are being used to protect the environment. The potential of digital technology goes much further than shopping apps, QR codes, mobile games and online pokies!

A new study has found that indigenous Peruvian communities can dramatically reduce deforestation in their own territories using smartphones and satellite imagery. In the first year of the study, tree losses were reduced by half.

Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon

The Peruvian Amazon jungle is one of the most biologically diverse on the planet. It contains the largest number of bird species in the world and a large number of mammals, butterflies and orchids. Unfortunately, illegal logging and land clearing has been a problem here for many decades. Outsiders remove trees for illegal gold mining and logging; and drug traffickers cut down trees to plant coca crops.

For forty years, governments and environmental organisations have been investing in satellite technology to monitor and identify areas of Amazonian deforestation. When deforestation is identified, there are systems in place to send alerts to the authorities.

These systems have already proven their worth, but many places that could benefit the most from this technology are completely isolated, without landlines, cellular coverage or internet access. A new study wanted to find out how much tree losses could be reduced if these isolated forest communities were given access to these kinds of tools and received alerts quickly.

Smartphones and drones for remote villages

The researchers chose 76 remote Peruvian villages in the Amazon rainforest and randomly assigned 36 of these to participate in a two-year trial programme. The remaining communities formed a control group. Each community chose three people to act as their forest monitors, who were given a smartphone and trained how to use the Forest Watcher app, read satellite images, use GPS coordinates and fly camera drones.

Potential land clearing was identified using an algorithm developed by the University of Maryland’s Global Analysis and Discovery lab. Whenever suspicious activity was detected in an area, forest monitors were sent alerts with GPS coordinates to investigate. They would visit the location and look for any unauthorised land clearing, record evidence and return to their communities to discuss follow-up action. Sometimes communities decided to take action themselves and sometimes, for example when drug traffickers were involved, they would contact the authorities.

Deforestation takes a nosedive

Allowing these communities to take quick action had a dramatic effect: deforestation dropped by 52% in the first year and 21% in the second. Jacob Kopas, one of the authors of the study, said that “on average, [these] communities managed to avert 8.8 hectares of deforestation within the first year. But the communities that were the most threatened, the ones that had more deforestation in the past were the ones pulling more weight and were reducing deforestation more than others”.

In the Amazon basin, 17% of deforestation from 2000 to 2015 occurred in nationally protected areas or those under the protection of indigenous communities. As Cameron Ellis from the Rainforest Foundation says, “if community-based forest monitoring methodology could be widely adopted and local governance strengthened, forest loss in the Amazon could be reduced by as much as 20% across all indigenous lands”. With the right tools and support, indigenous communities have a crucial role to play in the fight against deforestation.

Waipoua Kauri Forest, New Zealand

Source: Photo by Yathursan Gunaratnam on Unsplash

Green tech to protect nature in New Zealand

Even entertainment technology, like a video game, can help people engage with the natural world and learn about different wildlife species. We wrote about this recently, in an article about gamers learning about nature by playing their favourite video games. But when technology is actually designed to protect nature, as we just saw in the Peruvian Amazon, the potential benefits could be huge! It allows us to spot changes in the environment quickly and intervene before it’s too late.

In New Zealand, scientists also use technology to save the environment. Newsroom journalist Matthew Scott, recently interviewed an environmental scientist working for the Waikato Regional Council, named Jim McLeod, who has been monitoring satellite images of the bush since 1995. When he began his work, satellite and aerial imagery was of poor quality, computers were sluggish, and public interest low. Just obtaining data was extremely time-consuming. Today the situation is very different, McLeod and his team sort through masses of satellite and aerial data as they monitor kahikatea tree cover and kauri dieback. Today, the problem for scientists like McLeod is how to sift through such massive quantities of data.

AI for the environment

TAIAO is a project worth $13 million (GST exclusive) funded by the government and launched at the start of 2021. As its website says, it is designed to “advance the state-of-the-art in environmental data science by developing new machine learning methods for time series and data streams that are able to deal with large quantities of big data in real time, which are tailored to deal with data collected on the New Zealand environment”. In other words, it collects environmental data from around the country all in one place, which is then made available to the public. It also aims to help local scientists like McLeod sort through massive amounts of data. It comprises an AI computer program that will automatically check DoC predator cameras, map at risk native trees using satellite images, and detect algal bloom in waterways. As McLeod says, with AI, “you can train the computer to recognise different signatures (…) A person could do it, but it would take much longer. Now we can pick up a potential change in the trees much more quickly”.

The director of the University of Waikato Environmental Research Institute, Professor Karin Bryan, is excited about how AI technology can be used to prevent environmental disasters. She says, “decision-makers need to understand what’s happening before things go off the rails. Once a lake is green, it’s hard to turn it back”. By getting real time data on TAIAO and quickly identifying problems using AI people have a chance to intervene before it’s too late.

Back at the Waikato Regional Council, McLeod is using the platform's capabilities to quickly identify kahikatea stands. And he says that, while a person could do it, it would take much longer, “now we can pick up a potential change in the trees much more quickly”.

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