Today’s Solutions: January 29, 2023

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made clear, we must act quickly to restore and protect what’s left of the world’s biodiversity while reducing and capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

The Amazon rainforest is a vast area of dense forests that supports a tremendous amount of the planet’s biodiversity while storing approximately 123 billion metric tons of carbon, so safeguarding it from deforestation is crucial in the fight against climate change.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have tried for generations to protect this precious resource from a variety of outside threats, including illegal logging, agriculture, and coca cultivation for drug production. Unfortunately, the Indigenous communities have had little success against these powerful forces. However, a team of researchers is working on a solution that combines the in-person monitoring tactics of Indigenous communities with satellite data and smartphone technology to create an early-deforestation alert system to combat deforestation more effectively in the Amazon, and potentially in other forests that are under threat.

To try it out, the scientists partnered with a total of 76 Indigenous communities in Peru. Of that total, 36 communities trialed the alerts to monitor the forest. Three individuals from each community in the pilot program were trained to use the early-deforestation-alert system on a smartphone app and were also trained to patrol forests and document any damage.

Over a two-year time period, the participants were paid to work as forest monitors and received monthly alerts through the app when satellite data detected local forest losses. Once they were alerted, the patrollers would investigate and report back to their communities. Each community decided what course of action should be taken to address the threat—whether to report culprits to state authorities or to deal with them on their own as a community.

The results? The researchers found that the early alert program successfully reduced forest loss by 8.4 hectares in the first year, which is an impressive 52 percent reduction compared to the average deforestation in the control communities. “This reduction in deforestation was concentrated in communities facing the largest threat” of forest loss says Tara Slough, a political economist at New York University and one of the co-authors of the study.

“The implication of this finding is that if one were to continue the program, targeting it to the communities facing the biggest threats should avert the most tree cover loss,” she continues. “Given that it is implementable at the community level, this represents an important and scalable tool to empower communities to reduce deforestation.”

Putting the power in the hands of local Indigenous Amazonian peoples via smartphone early alerts seems like a promising solution, as long as the communities have access to the resources and training needed to effectively monitor for deforestation.

Seeing as many tropical forest conservation efforts are expensive and have limited impact, this pilot program is an exciting solution that offers a lot of potential for relatively low costs. “Any study like this one that shows something actually seems to be working—that’s good news,” says Krister Andersson, an environmental policy expert at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not involved in the research. Andersson’s suggestion for further steps would be to compare the monitoring program with other policy interventions.

Indigenous community member, president of the Federation of the Ticuna and Yaguas Communities of the Lower Amazon, and participant in the study Francisco Hernandez Cayetano note that the Indigenous communities involved express interest in continuing the work that was started in the pilot program. “We want to replicate this [effort] in other communities. In doing so, we are making a contribution to the world,” he told Scientific American.

Source study: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America—Satellite-based deforestation alerts with training and incentives for patrolling facilitate community monitoring in the Peruvian Amazon.

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