Technological guardians of the forest

Even as destructive mining and logging technologies are used to exploit this part of the Peruvian Amazon, the ACCA and its partners are developing and deploying a menu of innovative conservation technology options: electronic eyes and ears to detect extractive industry invasions and guard the forest perimeter of Los Amigos and other protected areas to keep this globally crucial landscape biologically intact.

As we travel upriver, Vargas and Avalos tell me about how precision conservation provides transparency and plays a critical role in ensuring a future for Manú and its connected buffer zones, including the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, Tambopata National Reserve, and Madidi National Park to the south; along with Las Piedras National Park, Megantoni Indigenous Reserve, and Otishi National Park to the north and east.

These interlinked preserves are bursting with biodiversity. The Madre de Dios to Manú region is thought to hold the greatest number of species in the world, according to the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network. It also offers an important altitudinal gradient that ensures climate resilience, while providing a vast vital watershed and stable weather patterns for much of South America.

The Peruvian Amazon is overseen by fairly good national conservation policies. However, where poverty, weak governance and lack of enforcement prevail, lawlessness and deforestation follow. Now conservation technology is poised to play a stronger role here.

My two-week stay at Los Amigos reveals challenges and new hopes. On one side of the equation (and the river), I saw vast forested areas, once biodiverse, now turned to wasteland by gold mining and illegal logging.

On the other side of the equation (and river) stand the proponents of precision conservation.

Meeting in the rainforest

In late June, Andes Amazon Fund executive director Adrian Forsyth brought together 30 leading technologists to create an early warning system capable of large-scale landscape conservation. They convened at Los Amigos Biological Station, and I was there to see firsthand the technical solutions arrayed to conserve a biome, where other methods had failed.

Three days of travel by plane and river canoe are a long way to go for a workshop, but Forsyth explains that our meeting environs — with its regular bursts of tropical rainfall, sweltering heat and humidity that leaves our bodies drenched and our clothes sodden — are vital to gaining a visceral understanding of the practical challenges of applying conservation technology in the remote tropics.

Andes Amazon Fund Executive Director Adrian Forsyth
Andes Amazon Fund executive director Adrian Forsyth makes a presentation to 30 leading technologists in June 2019 at Los Amigos Biological Station, Peru. Image courtesy of AAF.

It’s easy to fly a drone or run a laptop back in the U.S. But what about here, where there’s little or no cellphone reception, limited internet connection, and only small supplies of unreliable electricity? The equipment must work in the harshest conditions and operators must be able to troubleshoot and make repairs without the benefit of YouTube tutorials or 24/7 technical service available from a call center in India.

The day before our canoe journey, I accompanied conservation biologist Andy Whitworth, of Osa Conservation, who installed 62 camera traps with ACCA staff on a 31-point grid to monitor the recovery of species within the concession.

“We have these vast areas now where it takes two weeks by boat and arduous travel [just] to get to,” Forsyth says. “The government isn’t there. They won’t be there for the foreseeable future. How do you understand these areas, monitor them, and how do you protect them? Technology is at the point of allowing us to make a quantum leap in terms of being able to accomplish these three things.”

Camera trap footage courtesy of Los Amigos Biological Station/ACCA

A multi-pronged high-tech strategy

ACCA has intentionally positioned itself to operate effectively in remote areas of weak governance in order to strengthen the local capacity to monitor forests where conservation of biodiversity is most critical, says Daniela Pogliani, then executive director of ACCA. (Just before this article was published she took a new position with CIFOR-Peru.)

But ACCA isn’t only stationed in the rainforest. The NGO also works actively with federal environmental prosecutors, helping rewrite legal procedures in Peru to recognize GPS-referenced satellite images as evidence to open court cases against illegal invaders.

They’ve also helped owners of forestry concessions and Brazil nut concessions to build their technological capacity through the use of drones so they can better monitor land holdings against illegal activities. The government requires concession owners to report infractions, and failure to do so can result in hefty fines. But patrolling on foot is slow and expensive. Drone surveillance makes spotting extractive invasions easier, helping owners maintain healthy forest concessions, and ensuring continued economic viability.

Then there is the matter of safety. Often concessionaires must endure threats of violence from environmental lawbreakers, but the use of drones helps limit face-to-face conflict, says Pogliani. Fifteen of the region’s concessionaires are now recognized as drone pilots by the Peruvian government, allowing them to aerially monitor their lands, and to legally submit aerial photos to the forestry authority anonymously without exposing themselves to criminal retribution.

“These are people who barely knew how to use a mobile phone when they first started,” Pogliani recalls, noting that one 60-year-old pilot now flies a drone from her kitchen daily to see what’s going on in a sprawling concession.

ACCA is also now using acoustic monitoring as a conservation tool. Ten tiny cellphone devices have been deployed to listen for chainsaws and gunshots in remote portions of conservation concessions, alerting rangers and other authorities to intruders.

“Information can now bridge the gap,” Pogliani says, giving concessionaires eyes and ears in faraway places where, in the past, they were blind and deaf to criminal activity.

Boots on the ground

Avalos and Vargas are two of the six promotores who patrol the 145,557-hectare (360,000-acre) Los Amigos conservation concession. Trained in forestry, they spend most days collecting data on animal species and phenology, the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events.

The promotores patrol in pairs, and spend one week per month hiking along the northern flank of the concession, carrying all the supplies they need. The work is dangerous. When they run into illegal loggers, Vargas, who lives locally, conceals his face and keeps his distance, while asking the intruders to move on and reminding them they’re trespassing within a conservation area.

These efforts are having some positive impacts. The Los Amigos field station where I stayed in a cabin was once home to 1,000 illegal loggers who worked long days ripping down the canopy, selectively extracting mahogany from old-growth forest. Hunters supplied the hungry loggers with 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of bushmeat per week, hiding behind blinds rigged near forest clay salt licks, a natural lure from which to ambush herbivores like tapirs and peccaries.

In the past, illegal miners deforested and dug up small mountains of soil along parts of the Los Amigos River in search of gold flecks, which they shook loose from ore using conveyor belts, mixing their spoils with toxic mercury to amalgamate gold particles into nuggets.

While most of the illegal loggers have been driven out of Los Amigos in the past 20 years, under the management of ACCA, invaders remain a constant threat and still operate with impunity.

Today, gold mining is primarily concentrated along the length of the Madre de Dios River, which has been turned into an unbroken muddy, deforested ribbon of artisanal gold mines. Sediment and mercury pollute land and water along the entire five-hour boat trip from the outpost town of Laberinto to Boca Amigos. Mining there occurs openly and continuously along vast stretches of shoreline and deep into riverine forests.

“The River Madre de Dios will be the next frontier because it is not being addressed [by authorities],” says Luis Fernandez, director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA), who has been working to curb illegal gold mining in the area for the past 15 years. “The buffer zones along the river and protected areas are critical but overlooked habitats. They don’t have the same protections but are the fabric that holds the jewels together.” All day and all night long, for days at a time, where I expected to hear cicadas and tinamous, a family of ground-dwelling birds, all I heard from my Los Amigos cabin was the distant thrum of diesel generators operating suction-pump dredges across the river from the field station.

Those sounds presented a constant reminder that Peru’s tropical forests are being destroyed fast. Stricter mining laws have failed. Policing has largely failed. Attempts to change the mining industry have failed. An analysis by the MAAP Project and the University of Maryland shows that more than 80,900 hectares (200,000 acres) of rainforest were lost in 2018 in the Peruvian Amazon; the most important driver of that deforestation was gold mining.

In the Madre de Dios region, 106,800 hectares (264,000 acres) of primary forest were lost due to gold mining in the past 34 years, with the majority of the loss, 68,391 hectares (169,600 acres), occurring in the past six years in a gold rush centered on La Pampa. Finally, in February, Peru declared a state of emergency in the La Pampa area with Operation Mercury. Whether that declaration comes in time or produces positive results remains to be seen. As of June 2019, deforestation in La Pampa continues and has not been completely eradicated.

Adrian’s Army

La Pampa lies just 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Los Amigos as the macaw flies — but it is a world away. Less than a decade ago, it was mostly covered in old-growth rainforest, but was quickly transformed into a desolation during a gold rush that employed 30,000 people.

Today the region is a vast, Mars-like toxic landscape with an uncertain future, poisoned by Peru’s largest illegal gold-mining operation. The wasteland severs biological connectivity to surrounding forests and makes “the Madre de Dios department look like it is eaten up like a moth-eaten sweater,” says Miles Silman, a tropical biologist with North Carolina’s Wake Forest University and director of its Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.

Adrian Forsyth and the technologists have come to the Los Amigos workshop to brainstorm the means for preventing a similar fate befalling Manú National Park and its far-flung buffers. Evolutionary biologist and lawyer Alex Dehgan, who leads Conservation X Labs, joined the workshop because he saw it as a meeting of minds on precision conservation.

Conservation X Labs (CXL), a Washington, D.C.-based startup that supports conservation technology, is a matchmaker of sorts: it brings new people with diverse backgrounds — entrepreneurs, engineers, computer scientists and anthropologists — into the field of conservation. It also invests in research and development of new technologies; promotes collaborations; and offers financial incentives through large cash prizes intended to solve a range of conservation-related problems.

CXL’s newest prize is focused on mining. Dehgan, who visited La Pampa’s desolation, calls conservation technology a “force multiplier” in areas of negligent enforcement. High tech can provide an early warning system against often not easily detectable landscape threats.

Dehgan notes that the artisanal mining story is similar the world over. “It is born out of a desire to accumulate wealth, out of the desperation of poverty, out of the lack of alternatives,” he says. “No one wants to do this work, just like no one prefers a habitat empty of orchids and bird songs, but for the many young men who come to seek their fortune, this is the choice that they have. It is not dissimilar from why poachers poach, and why small-scale farmers deforest.”

La Pampa contrasts sharply with Los Amigos Biological Station. While the illegal logging that continues to threaten Los Amigos is selective and focused on high-value hardwoods, the loss of primary forest in the gold-mining region of La Pampa is nearly total, and so is the poisoning of land and water.

To Dehgan, the bleak, sterile landscape is heartbreaking. Capybara tracks offer a lone sign of life punctuating a tortured stretch of earth running from the forest edge to a mining pool; a few macaws fly over what was once lush habitat. The devastation stretches for many miles and active gold mining at La Pampa happens despite the presence of national police, evidenced by drone footage taken by CINCIA’S Fernandez.

“The value of those forests — even the wood — is lost,” Dehgan says. “It stops raining. The nutrient base and biomass of the forest [stored] in the canopy is lost. The species that maintain the richness and function of the forests is lost, and the ability of the forests to support tens of thousands of species is lost.”

Lone set of capybara tracks lead through the wasteland created by gold miners in LA Palma and head toward the forest edge. Image by Alex Dehgan.
Lone set of capybara tracks lead from the forest edge through the wasteland created by gold miners in La Pampa. Image by Alex Dehgan.

To combat destructive mining around the world — whether for gemstones, rare earth metals or gold — Conservation X Labs is launching a $740,000 Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge in late August 2019, available to individuals or organizations offering solutions to transform how small-scale artisanal mining is done, making it more sustainable and far less environmentally harmful, and lowering the barriers to the adoption of these new methods. Those obstacles can include culture, lack of education, and cost, for instance.

The NGO is also looking at innovations that can help remediate and restore landscapes impacted by artisanal mining. Conservation X Labs is joined in the effort by a global coalition of partners, including the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, Microsoft, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, CINCIA, ACCA, and the Andes Amazon Fund.

Dehgan says the Grand Challenge is seeking innovations that significantly reduce the negative socioenvironmental costs of artisanal and small-scale mining, advances that can be scaled up and implemented at any point along supply chains. Some examples: “innovations that bring transparency into the supply chain, transform financing mechanisms, or drive consumer demand and behavior … Innovations should demonstrate measurable impacts for reducing or eliminating harm to water resources, air, soil, biodiversity and human health.”

The long view

The forests of Peru, as in most tropical nations, are in deep trouble. Vast canopies that should look from the air like a sea of broccoli are giving way to heaps of slash, barren pits, and open pools of toxic water.

“It looks more like the land of 10,000 lakes. They’ve just made Minnesota out here,” says Wake Forest’s Silman of La Pampa. “Now we have a tropical ecosystem that has a lot of open water. We know nothing about what happens [next] in these ponds.” The number of lakes is precisely 5,058, based on 2019 analysis by CINCIA.

Silman spent the summer in Peru using a range of drone technology to try to understand the nation’s functioning forests and these waste places — centering on forest ecology along the Amazon-to-Andes elevation gradient between 150 and 3,500 meters (500 and 11,500 feet), while looking at varied responses to illegal mining and land conversion in Amazonian lowland forests.

Conservation biologist Miles Silman of Wake Forest University describes how world markets and escalating gold prices gave rise to gold mining in La Pampa in 2009. Image by Lisa Palmer.
Conservation biologist Miles Silman of Wake Forest University describes how world markets and escalating gold prices gave rise to gold mining in La Pampa in 2009. Image by Lisa Palmer.

He uses both deep and shallow machine learning to process the vast amounts of data his unmanned aerial vehicles collect while flying over intact forest and mining-transformed wetland. At the precision conservation workshop, Silman displays his medium-range fixed-wing vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, along with a medium-endurance copter with a thermal imager able to fly and function at night.

As unregulated mining spreads its destructive fingers across the Madre de Dios to Manú landscape, most observers would write off devastated places like La Pampa as unrecoverable. But Silman and Forsyth have a different view: we need to focus on the entire landscape — that which is intact, and that which seems lost — they say, not thinking in a 10-year time frame, but 50 to 100 years ahead.

“What is a system of land use that you can put in place that is targeted recoverable, and how is this landscape permeable for species moving through?” Silman asks.

Forsyth says that a long-term commitment, requiring large-scale investment, protection and understanding, is vital to the future of the Amazonian biome and fundamental for our survival as a species.

As the climate crisis progresses, he says, the tropical mountains that become conservation areas and span elevation gradients will become critical for the adaptation of species, with all creatures needed aboard this altitudinal Noah’s Ark; the spider monkey and woolly monkey, for example, disperse the seeds of hardwoods, making them critical for retaining Amazon carbon stores. Without those primate-sown seeds, trees could vanish, rainy seasons could evolve into perpetual drought, with rainforests turned to savanna, and the landscape spewing vast sums of stored carbon into the atmosphere, perhaps hurrying the pace of the climate crisis beyond our ability to cope with it.

Despite the arguments of loggers, miners and many politicians, what is good for the environment is good for the economy, says Forsyth. “A lot of people think national parks are a financial black hole that retards development,” he says. But “we’ve found that it brings Peru $1.5 billion per year, and is 7 times the size of the logging industry. Who benefits? Ladies who do laundry, taxi drivers, restaurants. The economic benefits of national parks are diffused through society and they are considerable. Part of our goal is convincing people that conserving land is a good development strategy in the long term and in the short term. It’s not about taking money away from poverty alleviation. It’s part of poverty alleviation.”

After a morning canoeing the Los Amigos River, I walk with Forsyth uphill on a lightly traveled path back to the biological station. Along the way, we play a counting game. Every few feet, we encounter a different species of Melastoma, a tropical plant identified by its ridged leaves. One variant has fuzzy-edged leaves. One is shiny. One has a thick stem with ants living inside. Another has a long, oval shape. Still another has leaves the size of dinner plates. We spot 14 different species along the trail within the successive tiers of vegetation.

While Forsyth doesn’t say so, that’s the whole point of the game: to see the immense diversity of this Amazonian lowland forest by counting its humblest, seemingly unremarkable vegetation. Stunningly, this part of Peru has more tree species per hectare than all of North America. Its mega-biodiversity is profound; jaguars, giant otters, giant armadillos, tapirs, peccaries, and several species of primates live here, but that’s just a drop in the speciation bucket. Tech deployed in this remote place has the potential to increase transparency in reporting environmental crimes and aiding enforcement. It can also greatly expand our knowledge of the creatures who call it home. Visiting, I came to understand that conservation technology is the journey, not the destination.

Camera trap footage courtesy of Los Amigos Biological Station/ACCA

Banner image caption: A Margay (Leopardus wiedii) spotted in Madre de Dios, Peru. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

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Clarification: The number of camera traps installed by Andy Whitworth and ACCA was revised from 72 to 62 as was the number of points in the grid system.

Article published by Glenn Scherer
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