How smartphones could help tackle illegal deforestation in the Amazon

·3-min read

Using little more than a smartphone, indigenous people living in the Peruvian Amazon can be a powerful force against illegal deforestation and play a vital role in tackling the global climate crisis, a new study suggests.

In a two-year study, 36 communities in Peru each selected “forest scouts” to use the satellite-based technology which reveals deforestation on smartphone maps. The maps allowed them to better patrol their communities’ territories against illegal logging.

The scientists also monitored 37 other indigenous communities to whom they did not provide any technology, in order to create a control group.

During the first year of the study, the territories using the technology saw 52 per cent less deforestation than their control group counterparts. In the second year of the study, data showed deforestation dropped by 21 per cent.

The research was carried out by the Organisation of the Indigenous People of the Eastern Amazon (ORPIO) alongside Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS).

The data for the maps came from the World Resources Institute. When satellite images record changes in the forest cover, they immediately appear as alerts on WRI’s Global Forest Watch online and mobile platforms.

In each of the 36 participating communities in the study, three forest scouts were employed, who investigated the deforestation alerts. The scouts were trained by team members at RFUS and ORPIO.

Suzanne Pelletier, the executive director of RFUS, said: “Although formal recognition of indigenous peoples’ land tenure is key, it is most effective when combined with robust forest surveillance and strong local governance.”

Jorge Perez Rubio, the president of ORPIO, said: “The study provides evidence that supporting indigenous tropical forest communities with the latest technology can help reduce deforestation in our territories.”

Preventing illegal deforestation is vital in the global effort to address the worsening climate crisis. With an area of forest the size of a football pitch cleared every second globally, scientists have warned that with the huge loss of carbon storage, and the subsequent aridification of land which was once rainforest, the planet could soon reach “tipping points” at which cascading crises will become unstoppable forces.

Over the course of the two-year study, the 36 forest communities prevented the release of over 234,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This came at a tiny cost of about $5 (£3.60) per tonne.

The research team said their findings provide a basis for determining how much of the Amazon’s 2 million square miles of rainforest could be saved if Rainforest Alert was adopted by indigenous peoples throughout Amazonian Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

RFUS geographers worked out that if a similar approach was taken and the technology was used throughout similarly threatened regions of the Amazon Basin, it could help prevent as much as 4,400 square miles of deforestation over the next decade – a collective area one and a half times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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