Standing in the middle of the Numbala Reserve in Ecuador’s southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, it is easy to feel completely removed from the technology of modern life. Nature seems to dominate here. Cloud cover hangs low over the mountainsides which, despite their sharp inclination, are green with dense forest and high-altitude grasslands. The climate and conditions of the Reserve support an amazing diversity of life — more than 40 types of mammals, around 300 species of birds and the highest number of endemic plant species of any protected area in Ecuador (no small feat considering that the Tropical Andes region is home to one-sixth of the world’s vascular plant species).
While it is easy to believe that this oasis of biodiversity is worlds away from the effects of humankind, the Numbala Reserve was born out of a need to protect the ecosystem from the effects of unregulated logging and other man-made threats. Although technology seems out of place in this intensely natural world, big data and an online platform are playing a surprising role in keeping it safe.
Walking Among Giants
The Numbala Reserve was established in 2006 by the Nature and Culture International (NCI), a South American conservation NGO purchased 1,260 acres of land that was soon to be cleared by commercial loggers. NCI has since nearly doubled the reserve to its current size of 2,552 acres and plans to continue growing. The Numbala Reserve is home to several different species of the Podocarpus tree, the only native conifer in the Ecuadorian Andes and commonly called “romerillo.” Numbala’s romerillo are giants. Growing up to 155 feet high and 5 feet in diameter, these trees tower above the rest of the forest canopy and are easily singled out by loggers.
The Hand Behind The Axe
Deforestation and logging in Zamora Chinchipe have deep economic and historical roots. Nearly half of rural Ecuadorians live at or below the poverty line with a per capita monthly income of $84.25 or less, according to the Ecuadorian government’s March 2016 Poverty Report. Romerillo wood is highly prized for being easy to work and rot-resistant, and it is possible to make around $1,000 per month selling it illegally. Although laws have been passed banning the transport and sale of most romerillo wood, enforcement of them remains sporadic and, as rural economic conditions remain challenging, illegal timber is still removed from Ecuadorian forests.
The Ecuadorian government also historically incentivized deforestation by requiring landowners to demonstrate that land in their possession was being used for farming as part of its land settlement programs in the 1960s and 70s. The policy was officially changed in 1994, and since the negative effects of deforestation have become apparent, Ecuador now has a payment-for-conservation program called SocioBosque in which forest owners are compensated for keeping their forests intact.
Keeping Close Watch
Deforestation remains a serious environmental issue not only for the Numbala Reserve and many regions of South America, but for the entire biosphere. Beyond the loss of diversity and the disruption of ecosystems when trees are felled, tropical forests also hold more than 210 gigatons of carbon, which is released when they are cut, burned or otherwise removed. Carbon emitted from deforestation represents around 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.
In order to monitor the health of the Numbala Reserve’s forest, the team at NCI use a free, interactive online map that provides them with information about the status of forest landscapes worldwide. The project is known as Global Forest Watch (GFW) and began in 1997 as an initiative to establish a global forest-monitoring network, organized by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and partners with Google and the Center for Global Development. Over the course of 20 years, the project evolved to harness the power of developments in data sharing technology to create an online platform displaying worldwide forest data in near real time.
Data from partner satellites, covering the Earth’s entire surface, can be collected, transmitted or analyzed in seconds and then sent to be displayed in the interactive map on GFW’s website. Users can analyze forest trends, subscribe to alerts and download data for their local area or the entire world. GFW also crowdsources data from its users on the ground via online tools, blogs and discussion groups. In a blog post on the GFW website, Riera describes how the platform allows the team to monitor the health of the forest in much greater detail than if they were surveying by foot.
Many other organizations beyond the NCI use GFW for projects related to monitoring forest health both locally and globally. The platform also has targeted tools for companies looking to monitor the risk of deforestation in their supply chains and adjust their practices to be more sustainable. It provides a unique opportunity for worldwide organizations and individuals on the ground to collaborate by sharing their data, making it easily available, interactive and giving it a compelling visual platform. NCI’s use of the Global Forest Watch platform shows that sometimes technology can be leveraged to protect a world that is entirely natural, like the giant romerillo standing tall above the Numbala Reserve.