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Tracking down logging roads in the Congo Basin

A logging road cuts through the rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Launched in 2015, the Logging Roads Initiative mines 13 years of satellite data in the six countries that hold the Congo Basin – Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.
  • Contributors need only have an Internet connection to plot the locations of roads through timber concessions.
  • After analysis by volunteers, the data is added to Global Forest Watch as the platform’s logging roads layer.

It’s no secret that logging roads stimulate the movement of people and goods into and through once-remote areas. But tracking their secretive inception has proven difficult.

Now, a project aimed at tracking these incursions into the forest is gaining momentum. Less than a year old, the Logging Roads Initiative allows anyone with Internet access to update the paths of logging roads just as they’re beginning to open up vast tracks of rainforest in the Congo Basin.

By the time the deforestation that typically moves in lockstep with road construction appears on satellite maps, people from outside may have settled into the area, bushmeat hunting could be squeezing local populations of mammals, and critical elements of the forests may have been fundamentally altered by these new pressures.

In fact, roads are so effective at helping us humans to colonize far-flung areas that they’re a favorite tool for development plans, as a team of researchers confirmed in 2015 when they mapped out a continent-wide strategy centering on development corridors.

“What happens is you get a whole spider web of secondary and tertiary roads,” Bill Laurance, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University in Australia and an author of the paper, told Mongabay in 2015.

In the case of logging roads, that can touch off a Jacob’s ladder of deforestation that spreads throughout and beyond the concessions.

A map from Global Forest Watch shows the close correlation between intact forest loss between 2000 and 2013 and the growing networks of roads in the Republic of Congo.

Data from Global Forest Watch demonstrates how the loss of intact forest can follow the reticulated expansion of roads throughout a concession in the Republic of Congo. On the map, the lighter green space is where forests once stood in the year 2000. It fans out from the fish-skeleton-like road patterns visible with the Congo Basin logging roads layer, which pinpoints not just where but also when specific roads became part of the landscape.

A recent study by American scientists published in the journal Geoderma found that the roads themselves change the way the forests functions because the packed soil they create halts the ground’s natural absorption of water and leads to spikes in runoff and erosion.

Many logging companies – in addition to other interests bent on resource extraction such as mining and oil exploration – are turning toward Africa and see roads as vital arteries to access the resources they’re pursuing. But right now, the deepest reaches of Earth’s second largest rainforest in the Congo Basin haven’t yet seen the penetration witnessed in its largest.

Laurance and his colleagues revealed in a 2014 paper for the journal Biological Conservation that 95 percent of deforestation in the Amazon takes place within five kilometers of roads or rivers. And investigations by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project in 2015 uncovered an illegal road winding its way through what would become Peru’s newest national park. It also showed the characteristic outgrowth of other roads from a central spine, which further opened up a carbon-dense lowland forest to unauthorized logging and mining before the government could officially protect it.

Logging roads are often a first step toward deforestation, as seen here in the Congo Basin for slash-and-burn agriculture. Photo by John C. Cannon

Softening the blows that roads deal to the Congo Basin requires better monitoring, according to the Logging Roads Initiative. The project leverages 13 years of satellite data to follow the spread of roads through the six Congo Basin countries, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo. But critical to fulfilling its mission is the crowdsourcing aspect of the effort.

With a set of tools anchored on the same software that underpins the geographic elements of craigslist and Foursquare, users can add information about the location of roads, providing vital clues to where deforestation may occur in the near future.

To date, more than a dozen users (of about 60 altogether) have submitted more than 100 pieces of data to the project.

Global Forest Watch, who partnered with the technology-oriented organization Moabi to create the Logging Roads Initiative, highlighed the urgent need for this type of information: “Because roads are the main catalyzers of deforestation, monitoring their development and providing timely data to law enforcement and forest managers is critical to maintaining the integrity of the Congo Basin forest.”

Disclaimer: Mongabay receives funding from the World Resources Institute (WRI). However, WRI has no editorial input as to Mongabay stories.

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Banner image by Rhett A. Butler