Lungs of the Earth

The Lungs of the Earth

Jacopo Ottaviani

Photography and design: Isacco Chiaf

The world’s forests, along with its oceans, absorb enormous amounts of the carbon dioxide that circulates in the atmosphere. They are, effectively, the Earth’s lungs, and protecting those lungs is crucial if we are to defend the planet’s biodiversity and fight global warming.

But, between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 129 million hectares of forests, destroyed by chainsaws, fire and cement. Deforestation is advancing at an alarming pace: about 10 hectares of forest – the equivalent of 14 football fields – disappear every minute, the result mainly of human activities such as agriculture, the extraction of raw materials and urbanisation.

Source: Global Forest Resources Assessment (Fao, 2015)

Still, globally, the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past quarter of a century, and, in some regions, such as China and Europe, forests are expanding as reforestation and an increase in tree cultivation takes place.

But, elsewhere, humankind remains a menace to forests. The main rainforest basins in the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asia lose millions of hectares every year. In 2015 alone, Indonesia lost roughly 2.6 million hectares of forest – the result of one of the most damaging fires in recent times.

“I know the fire will be back next year. I know we don’t have the equipment we need and that we’ll have to fight it with our bare hands. But that doesn’t matter: we’ll fight it. Our spirit is the spirit of the forest." When he speaks of the forests in which he was born and raised, Basuki Budi Santoso’s eyes fill with tears.

Making use of what little means they have at their disposal, Basuki and his small team from the Friends of the National Parks Foundation work to defend the Tanjung Puting reserve from the flames that periodically affect it. The park, which is located in Central Kalimantan, in the southern part of the island of Borneo, has been at the centre of the fires that struck Indonesia throughout 2015. Burning unabated for weeks, it turned about two million hectares of forest to cinder, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Basuki’s base camp can be reached by navigating the River Kumai. A small dock leads to a path that crosses the forest, where beams of sunlight cut through the humidity and the water in the streams resembles the colour of tea. It takes a few hours of walking to reach the Beguruh reforestation area where Basuki and his men are trying to help the forest come back to life.

Basuki’s men are resting for a moment in the shade of a wooden shed. There are some hammocks, a gas burner for making coffee and an open air shower. A few metres away, pots are lined up. They hold the seedlings of trees. "This is our plant nursery," explains Basuki. This is where we look after the trees that will repopulate the forest that burned down."

"The fires come back every year, especially from September onwards, in the dry season. And the fire keeps burning even when it seems to be extinguished, because it’s burning underground, in the peat," Basuki says. "When the fires come back, we work restlessly to extinguish them. At night, we take turns sleeping a few metres away from the flames; sometimes someone can lose their life, suffocated by the smoke. In times of respite we plant the trees back into the burnt areas instead, and prepare for our next battle."

Basuki spends most of the year in the jungle of Central Kalimantan, coordinating the interventions against the fires and various reforestation projects. His salary allows him to fly twice a year to see his wife and two children, who live in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Indonesia in flames

Source: Global Fire Data

From September to October 2015, Indonesia was the scene of one of the most disastrous fires in recent years. Burning unabated for weeks, the flames affected more than 2.6 million hectares of forest, mainly in the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Enormous clouds of smoke made it to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, with toxic gases inhaled by at least 43 million people. The Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics called the fires a "crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions".

The most authoritative theories blame the fires on individuals interested in the acquisition of new lands – including some companies that produce palm oil – and on farmers who use the fire to prepare lands for cultivation. The dry season and the prolonged combustion within the vast peat stretches make extinguishing operations even more complicated.

Almost all fires detected in Indonesia are caused by mankind to prepare the lands for farming.

"Almost all fires detected in Indonesia are caused by man for farming reasons. A fire is the cheapest way to empty out the land for agriculture. Fires can be ignited by individuals who control vast plantations, or small farmers working in their own parcels of land with traditional methods," explains Peter Holmgren, the director of the Centre for International Forest Research (CIFOR), which is based in Bogor, near Jakarta, and researches tropical forests.

In Indonesia, according to Global Fire Data’s estimates, more than 130,000 fires were detected in 2015 alone, producing almost two billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. That is more than the total produced by Germany or Japan in a year.

Forest fires are a global problem. "According to Nasa and to the Global Fire Database, an average of 4.5 million hectares of rainforest go up in flames every year," explains Guido van der Werf, an Earth and life sciences researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam. "Almost all fires in tropical areas are caused by mankind."

“The drone’s hardware can be bought with about $2,000, while the software for flying it is free and open source," explains Keeyen Pang, the director of Conservation Drones’ Asian operations, while his son builds a small drone and inserts its flight mission. "All you need to do is install a micro-camera on the drone to obtain a high definition mapping of the forest."

"Our drones are a cheap and effective instrument against deforestation and support the conservation of nature," explains Lian Pin Koh, a professor of Applied Ecology at Adelaide University. Along with the Swiss biologist Serge Wich, Lian Pin Koh is the founder of Conservation Drones, a non-profit organization that brings together an international group of ecology experts and remote controlled aircraft enthusiasts.

An area of the Gunung Leuser national park, in Indonesia, has been cut down illegally, as detected by the Conservation Drones team. A strip of trees and plants has been left along the river to hide the deforested area.

Source: Conservation Drones

"We’ve been helping the environmental defence organisation drones fly since 2012. It’s important to supply low cost technology, mainly in developing countries, to fly over hard to access areas and control their state of conservation," the co-founders of Conservation Drones tell us.

"Conservation Drones often gets cooperation proposals from organisations from all over the world. Over time, our network of experts in drones for conservation has expanded," explains Keeyen Pang, as he checks the final configurations and prepares for the test launch.

In Southeast Asia drones allow the mapping of palm oil cultivations, one of the primary causes of deforestation in the region

Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich’s drones fly over Tanzania, where they are used to monitor chimpanzee conservation. They fly in Suriname, where a project for monitoring the virgin forests is in progress. In Indonesia, where they are used to observe the endangered orangutan population. And in the rest of Southeast Asia, where drones are useful for the mapping of palm oil cultivations, one of the primary causes of deforestation in the region.

Conservation Drones’ flight missions are already producing tangible results. "In 2014, for example, images taken by our aircrafts have detected an illegally deforested area in a Sumatran natural reserve," Lian Pin Koh proudly explains. "Our images have been used as proof by the Indonesian authorities, and the perpetrators of this crime have been put on trial."

In a remote corner of the Sabah rainforest, at the north-eastern end of the island of Borneo, a small team of zoologists is working for the conservation of a little-known animal: The sun bear. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, founded in 2008 by Malaysian zoologist Wong Siew Te, is the only reserve in the world where this endangered species is actively preserved.

"Not many people can imagine that these bears live in the tropical forest too, to the extent that we have nicknamed them ‘the forgotten bears’," says Tee Thye Lim, who is in charge of the bears in the conservation centre who have been removed from captivity.

"Unfortunately, even though they are not well-known worldwide or perhaps because of this, they are endangered. In the past 30 years we have lost about 30 percent of specimens."

In some Southeast Asian regions, sun bear cubs are captured to be kept as pets, only to be abandoned once they grow larger. They are also victims of illegal commerce, as in Chinese medicine the bears’ gallbladders and paws are believed to have healing powers. In addition to this, deforestation – mainly caused by the cultivation of palm oil – has considerably reduced their natural habitat.

The centre’s experts explain that the extinction of sun bears would cause a chain reaction in the forest’s ecosystem. "Plants and animals live in harmony and the removal of a single species can disrupt the jungle’s balance. The sun bears, for example, are true engineers of the forest," Tee Thye Lim explains. "When looking for the honey they feed on, they make cavities within the trees where other animals, such as the great hornbill, will then find shelter."

The sun bear of Borneo is just one of the many currently endangered species on our planet. According to the red list compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at least 20,000 species of plants and animals are currently at risk of disappearing from this planet. And that doesn’t even present the full picture, as not every species of animal and plant has been examined by biologists.

The destruction of natural habitats, the commercial exploitation of lands, pollution and climate change are some of the main causes of worldwide biodiversity loss

The destruction of natural habitats, the commercial exploitation of lands, pollution and climate change are some of the main causes of worldwide biodiversity loss.

"We are in the heart of a biodiversity crisis. We are losing about 1,000 species of animals and plants every year," explains Professor Henrique Pereira, the head of research at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research at Leipzig University. "Biodiversity is fundamental for the planet’s balance, but also for the health of humankind. Many of the medicines we use come from compounds extracted from animals or plants. Every time a plant or an animal becomes extinct, we lose our chance to discover compounds which can potentially be useful for the invention of a new medication."

A smartphone, fastened to a tree trunk in the rainforest, powered by solar panels and with an active microphone constantly connected to the internet is the concept behind Rainforest Connection, It is a device created by Topher White, a young engineer and physicist from San Francisco.

"The device created by Topher allows people to listen to the sounds of the forest remotely, using a simple smartphone," says James Reed as, harnessed within his equipment, he handles an odd plastic box with an antenna. "I’m here to help Topher construct the devices, here in the forests of Borneo. And in the meantime I’m teaching the local communities to climb safely, so that in the future they can install and look after the devices themselves."

Rainforest Connection’s devices transmit the incoming audio to the cloud, from which a computer programme can examine the inputted sounds. When the software detects an unusual sound, such as the rumble of a chainsaw or the shot of a rifle, an alarm message is sent to the local authorities or to those associations that can take action to stop illegal deforestation or poaching.

How does Rainforest Connection work?

Source: Rain Forest Connection

"We’re testing Rainforest Connection in all the tropical forests in the world. Our objective is to manage to protect 20 to 30 hectares using Rainforest Connection within the next two years," explains Topher White, who spends half of his time in his San Francisco lab and the other half in rainforests all over the world.

"It’s fundamental for us to set up partnerships with local communities and organisations working to defend the forests," explains Topher White. "Initiatives such as James Reed’s Tree Monkey are fundamental for us. James and his team help us to physically install the devices and organise climbing training sessions to teach the local communities to climb the tallest rainforest trees safely."

According to Topher White’s estimates, a single device can detect the sound of a chainsaw within an area of about three square kilometres. This means that using just a few devices, positioned in strategic areas (for example the forest’s access points), wide stretches of forest can be protected.

A simple cellphone connected to the internet can become a guardian of the forest

Topher White came up with the idea for the device in a rainforest. "In 2011, I was in Kalimantan, in Indonesia. I was walking through the jungle with my local guide when we came across an area which had been cut down illegally. The enraged local guide told me how hard it was to stop these activities despite the presence of forest rangers. So I realised that a simple phone connected to the internet could have been transformed into a sentry, and I spent the past years developing the device’s engineering."

Rainforest Connection’s devices can potentially also be applied in other settings. The sound transmitted by the cloud can be used by researchers to examine, for example, animal migration or to monitor the rhythm of an ecosystem. Or, more simply, it can be turned into a radio to listen to the forest’s orchestra from your own armchair, at home. "We’ve recently started a web radio that allows anyone, in any part of the world, to listen to live forest sounds. At the moment it’s only available to anyone who decides to make a donation and help us transform even more smartphones into forest guardians."

The evolution of forests from 1990 to 2015

Source: Global Forest Resources Assessment (Fao, 2015)

"Forests are disappearing on a global level at a rate that is an object of scientific debate. Data provided by the United Nations reveals a reduction of deforestation over the past decades," explains Peter Holmgren, the director of the Centre for International Forestry Research. "This is good news, but in certain regions of the world such as Indonesia, Brazil and Central Africa we are still losing forests at a worrying rate."

Lungs of the Earth

By Jacopo Ottaviani
Photography and design: Isacco Chiaf
Video Editing: Alberto Abbate
English translation: Robin Luis Fernandez

Developed with the support of the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant programme of the European Journalism Centre (EJC)
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Innovation in Development Reporting Grant