In Cambodia’s Central and Northern Plains, an area known as the ‘Serengeti of Southeast Asia,’ motorbiking rangers are trying to stop illegal logging. Their weapon against the chainsaws? A smartphone app.
Cambodia has one of the world’s fastest rates of tree loss, and activities in this area are a significant contributor.
Some 250,000 Kuy people and other Indigenous groups live in the forests and began fighting to protect their landscape in 1997 with a campaign against a timber concession company. Their major concern was about the loss of trees used for tapping resin, an important part of their local economies. But road building for log transportation, illegal hunting, threats to endangered species such as Asian elephants and the giant ibis, and the general loss of cultural and natural resources were alarming as well.
The campaign grew into the local people taking it upon themselves to patrol the forest for illegal activities, later forming a network of communities in 2013 for greater effect. In 2016, the Cambodian government gave large swaths of the Preah Rokar and Prey Lang forests – which together cover some 700,000 hectares of the Plains – status as wildlife sanctuaries. Yet the deforestation continued, with much illegally felled timber exported to neighboring China and Vietnam.
ONE APP, TWO FORESTS
Overall, Cambodia has seen a 23 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000 according to Global Forest Watch. As part of this, the country lost almost half of its dense old-growth forests: 3 million hectares, an area the size of Denmark. More than half of Cambodia is now non-forested.
Against this backdrop, two NGOs, a Danish university and Cambodian partners developed the Prey Lang app, or PL app for short, which launched in February 2015 in the Prey Lang Forest as a way to help the local patrollers keep track of their findings, expose the crimes in their landscape and inform policy changes. This February, the same group of partners expanded the app to also include the Preah Rokar Forest.
More than 100 local patrollers – a mix of men, women and youth – now use the PL app to monitor the forests, with many trained by the partners in data collection and peaceful conflict resolution, in the case that encounters with loggers don’t go smoothly.
“From a project perspective, we are aiming to work with more communities inside Cambodia but also globally,” says Dimitris Argyriou, a project and data manager affiliated with the University of Copenhagen. “From a technological point of view, we would like to harness the power of satellite imagery in order to make more informed decisions regarding areas of patrolling and also to enhance the power of our collected data.”
LEADING TO THE ILLEGAL
The rangers patrol the forest on motorbikes listening for the sounds of chainsaws or other activity, then quietly proceed on foot to the source. The app then records sounds, photos and GPS coordinates to provide documented proof of illegal operations.
Since the app’s launch, roughly 24,000 entries have been made through the app, with nearly half of them further validated by data managers at the University of Copenhagen. Duplicate entries and entries lacking proper photographic documentation or with technical problems are rejected.
Since the app’s expansion into Preah Rokar Forest this year, 29 percent of all entries have documented illegal activities, with 98 percent of those connected to illegal logging. The other 59 percent have collected data on the forest’s valuable resources: trees, animals, sacred resources such as certain trees and burial sites, and other forest products.
The app aims to reverse destruction despite ongoing challenges such as motorbikes breaking down, the thick forest canopy sometimes impeding accurate GPS coordinates, technical problems and an overall lack of enough smartphones, and corruption of local officials.
The community patrollers are allowed to confiscate logging equipment – chainsaws, tractors and the like – and bring them to checkpoints run by the country’s environment ministry. However, in some cases, confiscated equipment has been tracked back into the hands of the loggers. The patrollers do not have the power to impose sanctions on the loggers, and an added job becomes trying to expose the ministry officials colluding with the loggers.
ALERTING THE AUTHORITIES
Once enough data is collected through the app, it’s compiled into a report presented to the Cambodian government. The government has often attempted to downplay findings in reports from Prey Lang, says Argyriou, but outreach to Cambodian media is done to help disseminate the information nonetheless.
This has publicly alerted the Cambodian government to the scale of deforestation and land rights encroachment occurring within the country and helped the forests gain status as protected areas, despite illegal logging and other activities continuing.
“We are striving for banning the sawmills in and around the protected areas, and we demand more rights to the Indigenous Kuy and Khmer patrollers, such as sanctioning power to stop illegal logging,” says Argyriou.
“Above all, to speak with hot-topic terms, this project highlights that empowering Indigenous grassroots initiatives and equipping them with citizen science tools that utilize innovative technologies is a cost-effective method and should be trusted to shape the future of climate justice.”