NOT THAT LONG AGO, Sumatra was one of the wildest places on earth. From the far northern province of Aceh to the infamous Krakatoa volcano in the south, the Indonesian tropical island used to be an ecological haven of rainforests, mountains, peatland swamps, and dense bogs that sheltered thousands of rare and endemic species — the Sumatran tiger, Sunda slow loris, Sumatran elephant, and several types of orangutans, to name just a few. Today, it’s a poster child for deforestation. Orangutans flee fires set to clear the land, elephants struggle to survive in small forest fragments, and tigers, once regularly seen, are nearly invisible, reduced to critically low numbers. Vast areas of once-lush rainforest have been diminished to tree stumps and logging access roads, and native plants have been replaced by endless rows of oil palm, acacia, and eucalyptus.
This devastation is the result of several commodity booms. First, it was the trees themselves that were commodified: cut down and exported to timber-hungry countries like Japan in the 1970s and ’80s. Then, around the turn of the century, came palm oil and paper pulp industries that cleared massive areas of rainforest and peatlands — often via burning — to plant monoculture plantations on drained soil. Today, Sumatra’s former natural beauty is limited to a few national parks and largely inaccessible, roadless regions like the Leuser ecosystem.
The transformation of Sumatran landscapes — alongside the transformation of landscapes around the world — has captured worldwide attention. Deforestation is now recognized by many as a global crisis, one tied closely to climate change. About a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions can be traced back to the agricultural sector, and most of those emissions are due to the clearing of forested land to make way for crops. No country plays a larger role in these forest-to-farm emissions than Indonesia, which holds the unfortunate distinction of being the world leader when it comes to deforestation. The country lost 29,000 square miles of forest between 1990 and 2010, roughly a third of its forested lands.
Stemming deforestation, however, has proved exceedingly challenging. So far, corporate policies, national laws, and international agreements have all fallen short. Could technology — and in particular, satellite technology — be the key to better understanding the deforestation problem, and creating effective mechanisms to address it?
A new wave of start-ups seems to think so.
“The base information layer of the changing Earth was a missing factor for having actionable insights on global change,” says Tara O’Shea, manager of the forest and land use programs at Planet, a private Earth-imaging company based in San Francisco. “This is what our technology is changing…. For the first time you can see every forest in the whole world every day, and at a resolution where you can distinguish individual trees.”
The idea is that satellites and remote-sensing technology from Planet and other competing companies, like Descartes Labs, Orbital Insights, and Satellogic, will herald a new era of global transparency. By gathering high resolution images of forested land on a near daily basis, remote monitoring will allow us to access data not only about fires and forest loss in near real time, but perhaps eventually to track, truck-by-truck, logging and agricultural supply chains. End buyers would know exactly where their source paper pulp, palm oil, or timber comes from, and could use that information to inform purchasing decisions. And companies could track and report on their sustainability goals.
But if satellites are the key to change, why is deforestation still rampant? The technology is here. Planet’s first satellites went up in 2016 — since, then, the company has launched some 350 satellites into space, 140 of which are currently operational. Satellogic has been launching more sophisticated satellites — think higher resolution, higher frequency, and more rapid real-time data analysis — since 2014. That same year, The World Resources Institute (wri), a Washington DC-based think tank, launched its platform Global Forest Watch (GFW), which incorporates information from several datasets and satellites to monitor deforestation around the globe. We are empowered with more information than ever before about how, where, and why we are losing our forests. Yet GFW itself shows that deforestation continues to accelerate.
Clearly, the economy still values forests only when they are cut down.
“Forests provide all of these valuable services, but every economic incentive is to clear them,” O’Shea says. “Whether the driver is soy, palm, or cattle, the common root is that there is some other economically lucrative use of the land.”
Many of these satellites start-ups’ biggest clients are, in fact, those directly responsible for deforestation. For example, Descartes helps companies better monitor global natural gas supplies by allowing real-time assessment of production and transportation. Meanwhile, Orbital Insight provides data for oil companies to better manage refineries and monitor petroleum supply chains. These companies are following the market, enabling more efficient data for an economy that exploits the environment.
Another problem is the absence of robust enforcement mechanisms on the ground, and a lack of resources — and sometimes, the will — to enforce anti-deforestation laws and regulations when they do exist.
“The biggest things we’ve found, while there are ways we can improve the data, the real blocks are institutional challenges from hard-to-get to forest areas, governance, and corruption, [all of which are] really big problems,” says Mikaela Weisse, manager of the Global Forest Watch platform. “Technology is not enough on its own. We need improvements around all these other factors in order for tech to be effective.”
This becomes clear when you look at countries like Indonesia that have begun to make progress in stemming deforestation. While platforms like GFW and remote-sensing mapping tools have played a role, the key shift is not technology, but governance. Since a horrific fire event in 2015, which was driven chiefly by the draining of peatlands and bogs for paper pulp and palm oil plantations, President Joko Widodo’s administration has taken several strong steps to reduce fire risk. It has established the Peatland Restoration Agency, with a mandate to restore 2 million hectares of degraded peatland across the country, extended and ultimately made permanent a deforestation moratorium first enacted in 2011, and has even brought legal cases against companies responsible for fires on their land. According to GFW, primary forest loss in Indonesia dropped by 60 percent in 2017.
“What has really changed is on the law enforcement side,” says Arief Wijaya, wri Indonesia’s senior manager for climate and forests. “[The President] invoked local police and army to put out fires, but also to react and pursue all actors, including private companies and smallholders, who are responsible for setting fires.”
The flip side can be seen in a country that, not so long ago, was considered a global model for forest management. Between 2000 and 2010, Brazil made major progress with respect to stemming deforestation in the Amazon basin, driven by policies under then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that strengthened the ability of enforcement agencies to combat illegal logging and gave Indigenous peoples greater control over their land.
That has rapidly changed since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January. In less than a year, Bolsonaro has gutted the ability of environmental agencies to enforce laws, and has emboldened soy and cattle farmers to expand in the Amazon basin and even seize land from Indigenous peoples. Already, satellite data is suggesting a massive rise in deforestation there. In July of this year, more than 1,800 square kilometers of the Brazilian Amazon were cleared — a deforestation rate that’s twice as rapid as the worst month ever recorded by current satellite monitoring systems and one that, researchers say, is pushing the world’s biggest rainforest towards a dangerous tipping point.
The private sector has struggled to address supply chain challenges as well. Production of just four commodities — cattle, soy, palm oil, and paper pulp — is responsible for the vast majority of global deforestation. According to Supply Chain, an initiative of the conservation group Forest Trends, some 865 companies have “forest-risk exposure” due to their reliance on these commodities. So far, only 72 of these — including major brands like Proctor and Gamble, Nestle, and WalMart — have made zero deforestation pledges. That’s not great, but it’s a start. Of those companies, however, only 21 are disclosing progress towards their goals, according to a recent report by Supply Chain, Forest Trends, and Ceres, and few are on track to meet their pledges. If satellite data is allowing them to better monitor supply chains, so far, it has not facilitated real progress in reducing forest loss.
The growing number of satellites circling our planet are allowing us to understand forests — and the forces threatening them — better than ever before. But it might not matter. All the information in the world will not make a difference if countries and companies don’t put it to good use.
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