Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has reached the highest levels in a decade, a trend that is feared to continue under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. More than 2,200 square kilometres of forest were logged or burnt during the month of July alone – a stark increase from the 488 square kilometres lost in the same month the year before – according to the latest government data. That’s an area nearly the size of Dorset.
Many areas are cleared illegally to make space for cattle ranching or soy farming, but tracking such activity is challenging, not least because of the size of the rainforest.
Since Landsat satellite images of the Earth’s surface were made freely available in 2008, scientists have processed hundreds of thousands of images to map the tree cover and spot when and where deforestation occurs. The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) uses Landsat data to monitor forest cover and trigger alerts when changes are suspected, but at a resolution of 30 metres the images are not sharp enough to tell with certainty what is driving the destruction – it may be attributed to wildfires, illegal logging or clearcutting.
To confirm illegal activity, local environmental agencies have to check the deforestation alerts before producing a report, which takes an average of six hours to complete. Last year, less than one per cent of the 150,000 alerts issued across the country resulted in action being taken. “To send an anti-deforestation task force to areas falsely flagged as logged, or to send a team to confirm logging events, is costly,” says Pontus Olofsson, an associate research professor at Boston University who uses satellite images to study deforestation around the world.
Now, MapBiomas, a collaborative network of universities, tech companies and NGOs, has found a way to track illegal deforestation in near real-time. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and produce a new system,” says Tasso Azevedo, who co-ordinates the project. Instead, the group developed a platform that automatically collates data from the Brazilian government’s existing alert systems and cross-checks the area with much higher resolution images – down to three metres – captured by miniature satellites from Planet Labs, a private company based in San Francisco.
Monitoring deforestation across the country using only Planet Labs data would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, due to the sheer number of images that would need to be processed. The MapBiomas platform will therefore only zoom into those areas flagged for potential deforestation, in which case it will source detailed images taken before and after the incident to produce an automatic report for prosecution. Brazil maintains a detailed property registry, called the Cadastro Ambiental Rural (CAR), which allows the tool to easily check whether deforestation is authorised or not.
The platform launched in June following a test phase that produced some 5,000 automatic reports in two and a half months. “The next step will be to guarantee that people are actually doing something with it,” says Azevedo.
IBAMA and local authorities in the state areas that encompass the Amazon are currently trialling the tool. “The main problem is that federal government is cutting resources in the field so actions are being limited,” he says.
Making the MapBiomas tool freely available gives environmental agencies little choice but to take action and prosecute violators, Azevedo explains, adding that public prosecutors are already starting to push for action on the reports that MapBiomas has been producing. Members of the public are also able to view the alerts, which he hopes will put additional pressure on the government to tackle deforestation as a matter of urgency: “This way anyone in the public can know whether these alerts are being tracked and actioned.”
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