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A satellite image of Malaysian forest fires
Satellite technology can pinpoint at risk areas in remote regionsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Satellite tracking

November 10, 2011

Brazil has been monitoring illegal logging in the Amazon with satellite technology for 23 years. Now, interest in this pioneering know-how is growing in other countries that are struggling to deal with deforestation.


For more than two decades, Brazil has been using satellite images to monitor the rainforest. An important task, since deforestation releases more than a fifth of greenhouse gases worldwide, making it a significant contributor to climate change.

Logging in the Indonesian rainforest
Illegal logging is a rampant problem in IndonesiaImage: picture-alliance/OKAPIA KG,Germany

Pressure to better protect forests is growing especially in developing countries with large swaths of tropical rainforest, such as Brazil, Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Brazil has plenty of experience with such digital monitoring, since the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) established the world's first rainforest surveillance system, called "Terra Amazon," in 1988.

"We have a method that's established, mature and sufficient for export," said Alessandra Gomes, who works with INPE on the Amazon. "Our goal is to enable other countries in need of a strong system to watch over their forest cover," Gomes told Deutsche Welle.

Several international partners are involved in the initiative, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Together with the Brazilian government, they've developed training programs that are allowing countries such as Mexico, Gabon, Guiana, Congo, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam to adopt Brazil's monitoring system.

Inge Jonckheere of the FAO described the system as fully operational, scientifically solid and backed internationally.

"Many countries see it as an example, and would like to adopt it in their own contexts," Jonckheere said, adding that the system is being tailored to the specific needs of interested countries.

Out of the Amazon

Six international delegations have already been trained. Representatives from Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador participated in a training this month in Belem, on the mouth of the Amazon River in northeast Brazil.

Slash-and-burn in the Amazon region of Brazil
Slash-and-burn continues to be a common method of clearing tropical forestImage: guentermanaus/Fotolia.com

African countries are also involved. Apart from the Democratic Republic of Congo – the country with the second-largest rainforest in the world, and which suffers greatly from illegal timber extraction – Mozambique and Angola also sent representatives to Brazil.

Participants learned how to download satellite photos, and transform these into hard figures that indicate where logging is taking place.

"The goal is to get other countries working to detect deforestation, degradation and destruction of carbon storage in their own territories," Jonckheere told Deutsche Welle.

Carbon credits

The technique is particularly attractive, Jonckheere said, because the countries stand a better chance of promoting their interests at UN climate negotiations.

As decided at the 2010 climate conference in Mexico, nations can profit by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from logging through a program known as REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

But in order to receive credit for saving forests, participating countries must present verifiable data.

"There are two ways nations can guard their forests: They can start from zero and invent their own system, or use existing know-how. That's where Brazil can help," Jonckheere said.

Long- and short-term

Terra Amazon collects and processes photos from the North American satellite Landsat. Out of this, scientists get maps and data on rainforest regions where logging occurs.

In the digital age, the system is made up of various elements: the "prodes" module checks the yearly clear-cutting patterns, while "deter" takes quick measurements and sends distress signals to the main station.

Felled trees in Brazil
Felled trees along a stretch of ancient forest in the Amazon region of BrazilImage: picture alliance/dpa

The data is made available to the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama "within 15 days," Gomes explained, triggering on-site visits to see what has happening.

André Muggiati of Greenpeace sees the system as pioneering.

"It's a base for measuring the progress or regression in public policy of the Amazon region," Muggiati told Deutsche Welle.

"Without the satellite monitoring, it wouldn't be possible to assess what's happening."

Muggiati said the Brazilian government had so far acted to contain logging based on observations conducted by the satellite technology.

"We're seeing how logging has decreased. And what's interesting, is how the data are publicly accessible to all, how society is being alerted and can pressure the government to react," Muggiati said.

Author: Nadia Pontes / sad
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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