March 12, 2015
The forestry website Mongabay recently reported that United Cacao, a London-listed company that promises to produce ethical, sustainable chocolate, had “quietly cut down more than 2,000 hectares of primary, closed-canopy rainforest ” in the Peruvian Amazon. The company claimed that the land had been previously cleared, but satellite images showed otherwise.
The satellite images came from an online platform called Global Forest Watch, which provides reliable and up-to-date data on forests worldwide, along with the ability to track changes to forest cover over time.
Launched a year ago by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the platform has brought an unprecedented degree of transparency to the problem of deforestation, pointing to ways in which big data, cloud computing and crowdsourcing can help attack other tough sustainability problems.
Before Global Forest Watch came along, actionable information about forest trends was scarce. “In most places, we knew very little about what was happening to forests,” said Nigel Sizer, the global director of the forests programme at WRI. “By the time you published a report, the basic data on forest cover and concessions was going to be years out of date.”
Several technology revolutions have changed that. Cheap storage of data, powerful cloud computing, Internet connectivity in remote places and free access to U.S. government satellite images have all made Global Forest Watch possible. None were widely available even a decade ago.
Governments and NGOs are both using Global Forest Watch, as are companies like Unilever, Asia Pulp, and Paper and Wilmar, all of which have made commitments to stop deforestation.
An ambitious undertaking, Global Forest Watch brought together a broad coalition of NGO, corporate and government partners. Working closely with WRI are more than 60 partners, including Google (which supported the software development and provides computing power), ESRI (a privately-held mapping company), the University of Maryland’s department of geographical sciences (home to mapping and land-use expert Matt Hansen), Brazil-based Imazon, the Center for Global Development (a Washington DC-based think tank), and the UN Environment Programme. The multimillion dollar programme is funded by governments like Norway, the U.S. and U.K.