Eyes in the Sky Put Illegal Logging in Focus

Cambodia’s illegal loggers will soon have a potentially powerful new foe: a pair of NASA satellites with a keen interest in what they’re up to.

Researchers at the University of Maryland in the U.S. say an innovative new system that picks up signs of forest loss from space in near-real time—and with finer precision than ever before—could be watching over Cambodia by early next year.

An example of the satellite data published by Global Forest Watch using the GLAD alerts system, from Peru. The pink lines show evidence of logging roads cut through the forest over the past two years. (Global Forest Watch)
An example of the satellite data published by Global Forest Watch using the GLAD alerts system, from Peru. The pink lines show evidence of logging roads cut through the forest over the past two years. (Global Forest Watch)

Drawing on data from government satellites that circle the globe every eight days, and running them through its own algorithms, the university’s GLAD—Global Land Analysis and Discovery—lab has been sending out alerts on deforestation almost as it happens in the Congo, Indonesia and Peru since March. They have since added Brazil, and Uganda is coming soon.

Last week, Matthew Hansen, who helped develop the university’s system, said he hoped to have the alerts up and running for Cambodia by spring, free of charge and available to the public. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to select a part of the country and sign up to get the alerts as soon as they come out.

The university has teamed up with the World Resources Institute to publish the alerts on the institute’s Global Forest Watch website.

“We have been talking about near-real time information for a while now at Global Forest Watch, but this is the first time that we’ve felt like that is the reality,” said Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst for the online forest monitor.

“We hope the alerts will be used to catalyze rapid action in response to deforestation. That could be park rangers conducting a patrol based on the location of the alerts, journalists writing about concerning new areas of deforestation, community groups documenting encroachment on their lands, etc. The ultimate goal, of course, is reducing deforestation.”

The university has been using data from NASA’s Landsat 7 and 8 satellites for a few years already to put out annual forest-change maps of the entire planet. Those maps show that since the turn of the century, Cambodia has had one of the highest global rates of forest loss.

The system, which will update subscribers on forest cover changes almost weekly, has its limits.

Satellites need a clear view of the Earth and clouds can get in the way, a common problem in the tropics. And, because the system measures tree cover, selective logging that keeps the forest canopy largely intact can evade detection.

Researchers hope park rangers and community groups will follow up on the ground before loggers do their damage and leave, but they’re likely to have a hard time finding the internet connections they need to get the alerts in the remotest areas. Ms. Weisse said the team was working on a mobile app, Forest Watchers, that will let users access the alerts offline.

On the plus side, the resolution of the images created by the system marks a vast improvement on most other real-time alert systems, which produce images covering an area of 250 meters on each side of an area of focus. The GLAD alerts cover an area of 30 meters per side. That’s roughly the difference between 10 football fields and two basketball courts.

That’s still not fine enough to pick up the loss of a few trees. But it can spot new logging roads piercing through a thick forest, a common harbinger of more logging to come.

Ms. Weisse said the system has so far had the most success in Peru, where several government and NGO partners use the alerts regularly.

“Those uses range from helping indigenous communities monitor their lands, to writing stories about recent illegal deforestation, to sending out monthly reports to regional government agencies about detected forest changes,” she said.

In March, Reuters reported that the images were used in Peru to spot illegal gold miners clearing forest for their operations. The government stepped in and shut the mine down.

Global Forest Watch hopes to have the rest of the Amazon basin, Congo basin and insular Southeast Asia covered by alerts in the next few months and to roll it out from there.

“Cambodia is an interesting case because there is so much change going on in forests, even in protected areas and intact forests,” Ms. Weisse said. “I think the alerts, when ready, could help communities and NGOs document cases of illegal or unwanted deforestation in near-real time.”

Of course, the alerts will only help if there’s someone on the ground to confirm that illegal or unwanted logging is actually taking place—and ready to stop it.

“The idea is for users to take the information to call out or slow illegal and unsustainable deforestation, but that becomes much more difficult when the government is not supportive,” Ms. Weisse said.

Jago Wadley, a senior campaigner for the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which has tracked Cambodia’s timber trade, agreed.

“Its application will only be as useful as the use enforcement officials put the alerts to. There is obviously the danger that government [agencies] do not seek to build them into their formal monitoring functions,” he said.

Mr. Wadley said some governments are likely to see the alerts as a breach of their national sovereignty.

That’s a common refrain in Cambodia, where the government often accuses critical NGOs of violating its sovereignty. It recently threatened to kick the U.N.’s human rights team out of the country for suggesting that the government’s exile of opposition leader Sam Rainsy was unconstitutional. It threw environmental group Global Witness out of the country for helping expose the government’s involvement in the country’s illegal logging racket.

“They need to accept that the technology will not go away, and that rather than being a threat it presents very real and cost-effective enforcement capacity they should take advantage of in the conduct of their duties,” Mr. Wadley said. “Not to build this type of technology into government monitoring and enforcement of forest sector activities would be a dereliction of duty.”

Marcus Hardtke, who has been investigating the country’s timber trade for the past two decades, said the government has also proven reluctant to accept any research it either was not involved in or has not signed off on.

“The government usually tries to ignore all data that has not been generated and ‘approved’ by its agencies. This is, of course, only a cheap excuse to ignore the obvious,” he said. “But an independent monitoring system like this would certainly increase the pressure on them to act.”

That is why the GLAD alerts need to be out of the government’s hands and available to all, he added. The hope is that what’s allowed to thrive in the dark might prove harder to ignore when out in the open.

“Fighting against illegal logging in Cambodia means, to at least 50 percent, fighting against government agencies aiding and abetting environmental crime. In most cases, authorities are well aware of what’s going on in their territories,” Mr. Hardtke said.

“But rather than enforcing the law, they choose to tax illegal activities for personal gain or black budgets. Established conservation NGOs cannot be trusted with this either since they have a policy to gloss over problems in their project areas,” he added. “Exposure and public scrutiny work best in this kind of environment.”

Chheng Kim Sun, who heads the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration, said he was fully on board with the alerts and that he already received regular alerts from NASA on forest fires.

“If that is a free application, it’s a great idea,” he said of the new alerts. “We would love to have it.”

Mr. Kim Sun said he had no concerns about having the alerts in the public domain.

“It’s nothing to hide,” he said. “Nothing to lie about to the people.”

But the Agriculture Ministry has lost much of its jurisdiction over Cambodia’s forests since it transferred control of its protected areas over to the Ministry of Environment earlier this year. A spokesman for the Environment Ministry could not be reached.

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