About 1.6 billion people in the world are directly dependent on forests, as they provide livelihoods, business opportunities and energy generation. However, taking a broader perspective, we are all “forest people”, as forests present a cornerstone to respond to climate change. Despite this pressing importance, it is well known that forests throughout the world are declining and their grounds are being reused for more lucrative activities. This happens not only in the amazonas vast regions. In Borneo, 95% of land was covered with forests at the beginning of the 20th century; this number shrunk to 71% in 2005 and 54% in 2015.
The reasons behind this are the combination of high potential for different uses (mostly palm oil), the perception of little alternative economic opportunities of local inhabitants and the prospects of quick money.
Deforestation leads to deadly phenomena for local communities. Among them, missed storage of greenhouse gases globally; endangered habitat of the local species, such as orangutans, forest elephants and hornbills; desertification; soil erosion; fewer crops and flooding.
“In the end, we all depend on forests but don’t act accordingly.”
The problem of deforestation – as described – is by no means a recent phenomenon. Many big organizations such as the World Bank or the United Nations support sub-country administrative units and regions with financing, monitoring and management techniques. These approaches mostly depend on manual processes and extensive work in the field, which makes scaling of the approaches rather costly.
Recently, projects started to integrate digital technologies in their reforestation efforts to increase the potential value offered, as well as to increase scalability. For instance, Liberia Forest Sector Project rolled out a “chain of custody” through barcodes and data forms. This approach brought a totally new view on how to approach reforestation and is one of the first models to radically rethink reforestation.
Even more radical is a study taking place in Uganda, which argues that simply paying landowners in the developing world to not cut down trees can significantly reduce carbon in the atmosphere – up to 50 times more cost effectively than many energy efficiency programs!
Digitize Forests to Achieve Massive Reforestation
This radical rethink could be taken even further. The wide-ranging availability of bandwidth (mobile access to the internet) around the world, the increasing processing power of smartphones and the advances in artificial intelligence could bring the next level of reforestation models. Through the ubiquitous access to a whole ecosystem of knowledge, technical support, financing and sales channels and alike, anyone can be empowered to replant, manage and monitor trees. That can lead to a scale of reforestation not feasible with existing solutions. How?
Inexperienced farmers and landowners can rely on an AI-based mobile application that guides them in managing their plants end-to-end, encouraging them to plant trees to generate additional income.
The AI algorithm is fed by the farmer himself. By taking pictures of each tree and Geotagging that tree, the system will provide information such as calculations, amount of standing stock, optimal clearing times and potential need for pesticides. At the same time, every new picture improves the precision of the algorithm. In situations where AI is not precise enough, trained personnel can remotely support, based on the timely and accurate data (pictures of every tree).
This up-to-date and accurate accounting of the trees increases the data on the forest to an unprecedented level and gives rise to completely new models of reforestation partnerships.
New players can hook up to this information and help the whole reforestation ecosystem. The imaginable players in this ecosystem are almost endless: nurseries of tree seedlings can get in contact with the potential buyers, micro financing institutions can secure their lendings with the standing stock of farmers, producers of fertilizers, herbicides/ pesticides can target their products for maximum impact, intermediaries can “reserve” their trees and connect supply and demand. In return, the value for all farmers increases as they get access to all the services.
In the long run, this digitally supported accounting of trees “at the source” could make the timber value chain much more transparent. Potentially, producers and end-consumers could be connected directly with each other. It could establish a new level of trust compared to today’s certification programs, which by definition only provide evidence through control samples.
Farmer: easy access to an additional source of income, increased negotiation power, easier management of forest/ trees, increased flexibility (e.g. quick loan in case of unexpected events).
Intermediaries: increased transparency about timber supply, possibility of easy communication (“don’t harvest now, our customers asked for bigger trees”), securitization of supply and quality.
Micro financing institutions: better access to and information about possible borrowers, additional potential for securitization of lending through assets (trees).
Affiliators (e.g. nurseries, producers of fertilizers etc.): access to potential customers.
Governments: help in own-set reforestation goals, support in detecting misuse of land and property rights.
Local Community: Reforestation and economic opportunities.
- Are really all players interested in this increased transparency (or do at least the benefits outweigh the costs)?
- Are all technical difficulties already included so that the system can really function in scale?
This idea was grown in cooperation with Fairventures.
Best way to directly support it? VOTE!
(A small hint for the voting: as the voting-website unfortunately is in German only: you have to click on “Abstimmen” first and then confirm with “Ja”)
Icons from Tomas Knopp, The Noun Project