Deforestation in Cameroon has increased fourfold from 2006 to 2014, but the spread of cheap smartphones can be used to turn this tide

Edward Mitchard (Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh)

When I first visited Cameroon in 2007, mobile networks had just spread outside the cities, beginning a revolution in how remote villages could connect with each other and the wider world. Very few people owned their own phone, but homemade wooden stands renting them out by the minute could be found at almost every road junction. A few years later the micro-entrepreneurs are still there, but they now sell SIM cards and phone credit vouchers, as almost every adult has access to a phone (World Bank figures show Cameroon went from 17 phones per 100 adults in 2006 to 76 in 2014).

It is hard to overstate the transformational effect the rapid proliferation of mobile phones has had on rural societies in the developing world. Villages and towns that never received fixed line phones, and are only slowly being connected to electricity grids, now have a cheap means of communication with friends, family and business partners. Further, mobile phones have given the world’s poorest people access to the internet, connecting them to a wealth of information and opportunities unimaginable just a decade ago.

Excited as I am by the rapid pace of development, it comes with side effects. When combined with population growth and increased access to international markets, it is resulting in rapidly accelerating deforestation and degradation. For example satellite data suggests total deforestation in Cameroon has increased fourfold from 2006 to 2014, and this rate of acceleration is not unusual in sub-Saharan Africa. But I hope that the spread of cheap smartphones can be used to turn this tide.

There are now many forest preservation initiatives. These range from large national programmes (for example Norway’s $1bn commitment to Indonesia or the UK’s multi-billion pound International Climate Fund) to small projects run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and funded by selling voluntary-sector carbon credits or directly through donations. But in all cases their success in reducing deforestation is limited by their ability to monitor what is happening on the ground. These projects tend to rely on occasional satellite survey data for monitoring (if their success is monitored at all). Satellite data is great for mapping big clearings, but misses the small-scale removal of the most valuable trees, for example by illegal loggers. Furthermore, a good cloud-free image is often not captured and analysed until well over a year after the event, too late to prevent the loss.

Providing communities with smartphones has the potential to revolutionise such projects by fixing the monitoring problem. Modern smartphones contain a sophisticated set of sensors that make them ideal forest monitoring tools: they have GPS sensors, good cameras and accelerometers. Free apps such as Open Data Kit make it easy to build forms for entering data, and developments in mobile banking make it easy to pay community members for monitoring (whether using full banking systems or simply offering phone credit, which acts as an informal currency in much of Africa).

Community projects have used smartphones for a variety of aspects of forest protection. For example some indigenous forest peoples of southern Cameroon (so-called ‘pygmies’) have gained a degree of formal control to land they have occupied for centuries through a project run by MappingforRights through which they use smartphones to map their own boundaries. Similarly, UK NGO the Rainforest Foundation, supported by UK-AID, has used MappingforRights’ technology to allow real-time monitoring of logging in protected areas, all of which is made available online. The ability to take a geo-tagged picture of a fresh tree stump and have it instantly uploaded to the internet (and the community-member instantly paid) is a massive step forward for forest monitoring, and allows projects to instantly react to new threats.

I also strongly believe that new technology is empowering for communities, giving them the ability to do something about maintaining their forests against often intimidating vested interests. The very act of mapping out an area can increase the feeling of ownership and give a more tangible value, and this is of course expanded by conducting patrols and mapping changes in a transparent, public way. I think that the use of these technologies is critical to preventing encroachment from illegal loggers, or legal logging companies straying beyond their concessions, and further ensuring that benefits flow to the local communities and not to a chain of consultants or corrupt officials.

Ultimately I would like to see monitoring systems starting from the bottom-up with community-collected data. This could be added to by wider-scale data collected from unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), and ultimately global data from satellites. Too often projects run the other way, with satellite data the main monitoring tool, sometimes validated by people on the ground, and that satellite data is often only analysed at the start and end of a project: too late to change anything. Let’s use technology to bring monitoring into the hands of the communities that live in these forests.

Ed Mitchard is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. His research group works throughout sub-Saharan Africa, SE Asia and Latin America to create better methods to map and monitor forests.

This article was originally published in The Guardian