Conservationists working to save forests and species on the ground are looking to the sky, thanks to mapping tools and satellites that capture Earth like never before.
One project, Eyes on the Forest, is lifting the veil on forest loss in Sumatra, Indonesia, where demand for pulp, palm oil, rubber, and coal has created a nearly ”unstoppable wave of [illegal] deforestation,” said Michael Stuewe, a WWF-US scientist I met for breakfast this morning at the World Conservation Congress.
A peat forest felled in Indonesia. Photo courtesy Eyes on the Forest.
Decades of data on species populations, forest cover, natural carbon stores, and more went into the easy-to-use mapping tool that’s accessible to anyone.
“We needed a system that would make data available immediately to any user,” said Stuewe.
Powered by Google Maps Engine, the mapping tool—a joint effort by WWF-Indonesia; the NGO coalition Eyes on the Forest, based in Riau, Sumatra; and Google Earth Outreach—allows you to choose certain data sets, such as Sumatran elephant populations, and create “layers” of data over a map of Sumatra.
Google Earth provides images taken by NASA’s Landsat satellite that are detailed enough to show canals or roads created during deforestation, Stuewe noted.
I’ve never used GIS, but I easily created the below map by focusing on two subjects: forest cover and Sumatran elephant populations. (Try your hand at Eyes on the Forest.)
Map showing Sumatra elephant populations, protected areas, and forest cover. Image courtesy Eyes on the Forest.
The light green shows forest cover in Sumatra in 1985, while dark green shows forest cover in 2009. Government protected areas are shown in white circles. More tricky to discern are the two population estimates for elephants. If you look closely, the darker blue circles (elephant populations in 2007) sit on top of the lighter blue circles (elephant populations in 1985).
The map shows clearly that both trends—elephant populations and forest cover—are in decline.
Palm Plantations a “Cancerous Growth”
A main reason for deforestation and species loss in Indonesia is palm oil plantations—an “unregulated, wild cancerous growth” in national parks and government lands in Indonesia, Stuewe said. Plantation owners who set up their plantation in government forests get additional profit from selling the timber logged to clear the land, Stuewe said.
Palm oil, “the most successful oil in the world,” is widespread in everything from cosmetics to French fries to even chocolate bars (the oil prevents the chocolate from melting), he said.
Unfortunately, palm oil plants are like a “paradise of candy stores for elephants,” said Stuewe. The behemoths can destroy hundreds of young palm trees in a single night—prompting some plantation workers to poison elephants with fertilizer and organophosphate pesticides. That results in a “brutal death” for the animal, he said.
Poisoned elephants near a palm oil plantation. Photograph courtesy Eyes on the Forest.
There are sustainable ways to produce palm oil, he noted, for example by planting on degraded lands, for which no biodiverse rain forest is destroyed.
The ultimate goal, said Stuewe, is to totally expose such activities, so that governments, large corporations, and everybody involved in palm oil knows where the oil in their products is coming from—and stops buying from illegal sources.
And as new cloud-penetrating radar satellites come aboard, people involved in illegal deforestation “can no longer run away,” he said.
“We can now approach full transparency.”
Satellites For Conservation
Next I stopped by NASA’s booth in the Exhibition Hall to chat with Michael Abrams, a geologist by training who develops new instruments for Earth-observing satellites such as Landsat, the same one that provides Stuewe and colleagues with their Sumatra data.
Surrounded by colorful satellite maps of subjects as diverse as shrimp farms and Las Vegas sprawl, Abrams gave me a brief primer on NASA’s Earth-observing satellites, which go back to 1972.
Every two weeks a NASA satellite images the entire Earth, providing valuable data of changes on Earth’s surface, including (you guessed it) deforestation.
For example, scientists can see where roads or farms have sprouted in parts of the rain forest, perhaps providing data for where to focus conservation efforts.
“Anything that changes we can map, and people try to assess the impact,” Abrams said.
Watch Abrams talk about Amazon deforestation.
From what I learned, it seems that technology breeds transparency—and that can only be a good thing for the planet.
Christine Dell’Amore, environment writer-editor for National Geographic News, is reporting from the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju Island, South Korea.