BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — In the heart of a remote area in northern Brazil, the Amazon rainforest hums with the sounds of birds and insects. In the background, faint but distinct, another more ominous noise is heard — the buzz of a chainsaw.
That sound emanates from ongoing illegal logging activity in the Amazon basin, which has surged in recent years.
In response, Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a small California nonprofit organization, is deploying bio-acoustic technology to stop such deforestation — in Brazil and elsewhere — in partnership with local communities and authorities to end illegal deforestation in real-time.
The technology, which is similar to shot spotters deployed by law enforcement officials to monitor gunfire, uses solar panels and repurposed cell phones equipped with an extra microphone to record sounds in rainforests. The sounds are then transmitted to online storage space in the cloud, and through machine learning the data is analyzed for acoustic patterns. If illegal activity is detected, such as chainsaws or trucks, partners in the forests are alerted.
In Brazil, partners include indigenous Tembé people who have been trained as rangers. The rangers patrol the rainforest, using their local knowledge to coordinate with local agencies. When the sensors, known as Guardians, pick up sounds of human-made activity, an app on the ranger’s smartphone is alerted.
If a response is needed to stop tree cutting or forest clearing, law enforcement officials step in since loggers are often armed.
In addition to northern Brazil, the battle to stop illegal logging is taking place around the world and the stakes are high. Forests play an important role in supporting biodiversity and offsetting global warming through carbon sequestration.
They are also home to rare plants and wildlife, vital ecosystems, and aesthetically and economically important to millions of people, but they are also being rapidly cleared, often to extract timber and for agricultural purposes.
World Resource Institute reports that, “30 percent of global forest cover has been cleared, while another 20 percent has been degraded. Most of the rest has been fragmented, leaving only about 15 percent intact.”
Overall, deforestation and related landscape degradation contribute about 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, which is more than the global transportation sector.
In Brazil, forests losses amounted to about 800,000 hectares between 2015 and 2016, according to one estimate. In the North, the Tembé have found themselves outnumbered on their ancestral land as outsiders have moved in to cut trees, poach wildlife and smuggle drugs.
Through the Guardian devices and a few wifi hotspots in remote areas, the Tembé have been better able to respond to these incursions.
This blend of boots on the ground activism and cloud-based technology is a model the San Francisco-based Rainforest Connection hopes to replicate elsewhere as it looks for new funding and partners and plans new projects — including an “audio ark” of the world’s rainforest soundscape.
Says Rainforest Connection chief executive and founder Topher White: “If you can protect the trees, you end up protecting everything else.”