The Technology Trap: I Spy Black Market Logging

Rainforest connection innovation

Click for larger image

Deforestation is the source of up to 17% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, which is 50% more than that produced by global shipping, aviation, and land transport industries combined.  Globally, over 1.6 billion people depend entirely on forests for their livelihoods through employment, sales of crops, firewood, and other means. Even more depend on forests for shelter and sustenance. This problem is compounded by rises in the illegal logging and timber trade, and is finally starting to garner international attention and enforcement, with the help of some new technology. Actors at the global level down to community-based NGOs are innovatively using GPS systems and repurposing cell phones to empower local communities to track and apprehend black market loggers.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has partnered with the World Resources Institute (WRI) and a variety of businesses and NGOs to launch Global Forest Watch 2.0, which will utilize remote-sensing technology to track and apprehend illegal loggers. The initiative is a response to the ineffectiveness of current tracking systems, which largely rely on satellites. In an article co-authored by Achim Steiner of the UNEP and Andrew Steer of the WRI, it is not uncommon for a country to take 3-5 years to develop a national forest cover map, and this lag between data collection and uploading the data online results in forest maps being inaccurate before they are even published. This means that illicit logging activity largely goes virtually undetected at a regional or national level, where enforcement would step in.

The project will still rely on satellites, but will include crowd-sourced data, particularly from local communities. Illegal logging is often immediately apparent to the local, and often indigenous, people that live in the area and rely on the forests, but their remote locations and a lack of infrastructure impedes their ability to quickly communicate with the authorities in the area. Participants will still require access to technology, though, in order for the initiative to be successful. Via remote-sensing technology, such as GPS, “near real-time” high-res photos of the area can be uploaded to a user-friendly platform. While the process is not instantaneous, it will allow for evidence of illegal activity to emerge far quicker than current tracking methods. To illustrate, consider the following scenario, as posed by Steiner and Steer:[1]

“An analyst receives an alert from Facebook showing where deforestation has occurred. He then notifies the authorities who head to the location…starting an effort to save the park and apprehend the illegal loggers.”


A key component of this initiative is local involvement, which empowers the people living in this community to protect their resources through direct, participatory action. Rainforest Connection, an NGO based in San Francisco, latched on to this important component of the initiative. They have developed a similar project involving re-purposed Android cellphones to create the first real-time detection system designed specifically to combat illegal logging and poaching. The developers utilize the technology in the phones, which are also retrofitted with solar panels, to create a listening device that, via a microphone, picks up the sounds of potential illegal activity up to 1 kilometre away, and immediately transmits the location to local authorities.

4a960e4c6463d0adaf3d6f854b59a5f3_largeConservative estimates by the organization pinpoint about 300 hectare of forest will be saved by the initiative. This translates into a CO2 emission benefit comparable to removing 3000 cars from the road per year. The organization conducted a pilot project in Sumatra, Indonesia, and succeeded in stopping illegal loggers in their tracks. Now they want to expand and are depending on the ever-growing popularity of crowd-sourcing. The developers started a Kickstarter Campaign, seeking to raise $100,000 US, to bring the innovation to Africa and Asia. These initiatives are estimated to protect between 200 – 300 kilometres of forest combined.

By July 7th, the project had succeeded in reaching 33% of its goal. Since then, the response has been overwhelming. At the time of writing, the project has surpassed its goal by over $15,000, with 10 days left to go. This response has prompted the organization to up their funding request to $195,000, to initiate a partnership with Vasco van Roosmalen and a Brazilian organization, ECAM (A Equipe de Conservação da Amazônia or The Amazon Conservation Team), to help the Tembé community in Brazil combat the massive illegal logging market in the Amazon.

RC deviceBlack market logging is particularly active in the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, and throughout much of South East Asia. A report by the UNEP and Interpol, who are heading an international enforcement project, estimate that illegal activity is responsible for between 50 – 90% of all logging in these activities, and garners between $30 – 100 billion dollars per year.

That this project gained funds in excess of requested amount in such a short time speaks to the immediacy of the issue of illegal logging in the Global South, and a global commitment to stopping it. If you would like to be part of the fight against illegal logging and deforestation, you can donate to the Kickstarter campaign here. Incentives for funds donated include a certified carbon offset credit for 1 car for one year, and a mobile app that allows you to stream live audio from their project sites.




Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one × two =