Changing Rainforest Conservation
If it were possible to save our tropical forests from behind a desk, it would’ve happened years ago.
And they are worth saving. Their sprawling thickets, from canopy to forest floor, aren’t just the most biodiverse lands on the planet, they are more effective carbon sinks than those produced by even our most sophisticated technology. At the heart of these systems lie societies of indigenous people whose traditions, languages, and cultural knowledge broaden our perspectives and teach us new ways of understanding our relationship with our environment, sometimes people who comprise some of the very last uncontacted societies on Earth.
It is impossible to assign a value to the benefits that rainforests offer. Yet year after year, opportunists scrape these complex systems from the Earth for short-term gain – a crop, some cattle, an oil pad. An area of tropical forest the size of New York state is lost to these threats each year, destroying an ecosystem that took millennia to create.
Well-intentioned policies and a rotating deck of top-down conservation strategies often just reconfigure the terms and conditions of forest management. Meanwhile, the actual pressures of deforestation go unchecked on the ground, enabled by strapped governments, exploitative criminals, and a power disparity between those who live in the forests and those who would take it from them.
At Rainforest Foundation, we don’t see tropical forests as just a resource to be managed. We’ve been working with indigenous communities across the western hemisphere for the past thirty years, and we’ve since come to know tropical forests as a home. They are the breadbasket and pharmacy where men and women hunt, forage, and garden for their daily needs. They are where children play and learn, serving as both daycare and university to their communities. They are where generations of people have lived and died, people who now stand up as leaders deeply motivated to protect the landscapes that comprise their entire world.
It is here, within the heart of the forests, that the real solution to global deforestation comes from.
Today we can empower indigenous networks with the responsive data and inexpensive tech they need to fight back against the destruction of their homes – a moment where a timely intervention can stop deforestation from the ground up. By investing in indigenous communities, you activate their ability to protect their own land, creating a network that will protect our planet for generations to come.
Turning Information into Rainforest-Saving Action
Illegal deforestation flourishes by remaining out of sight, proliferating in distant corners of the humid tropics. Perpetrators operate under the belief that indigenous people won’t be able to combat logging operations, strong-arming those who would stand up. Meanwhile, understaffed forest departments can’t account for every log loaded on a truck and such illicit activity was nearly impossible to track, much less prosecute.
That landscape is changing; tropical forests are more visible today than ever before. Satellites spool around the globe daily, registering forest loss and other environmental indicators at high resolution. The rise of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) like Global Forest Watch allow infrared scanners to generate fire maps, a vital tool in identifying slash and burn deforestation. These maps are updated every 24 hours and provide evidence of fires and other sources of deforestation at up to 30-meter resolution.
On the ground, smartphones have proliferated to every corner of the earth, including all but the most remote portions of the Amazon. Every smartphone since 2012 is GPS-enabled and equipped with a camera capable of capturing evidence of illegal logging and georeferencing it with the push of a button. Cellular networks, wi-fi, and informal Bluetooth networks are springing up at key locations throughout the tropics, allowing information to flow to and from the field with unprecedented speed and volume.
At Rainforest Foundation, these advances in data availability and technology changed the way we work almost overnight. Instead of only digging in for protracted legal and policy fights (which we still do) we can directly address forest threats by activating nimble networks of indigenous monitors and leaders, using inexpensive tools to register environmental crimes and trigger government interventions quickly and efficiently—turning Information into Action.
On the ground in Peru
In 2015, the Peruvian Shipibo-Konibo communities of Patria Nueva and Nuevo Saposoa were losing 5% of their forests every year to coca growers, who illegally logged primary forest and replace it with a thin smear of cocaine-grade coca plants. This meant that by the time their children reached their twenties, their forests could have completely disappeared, and our planet would be 32 million tons of atmospheric carbon closer to boiling.
In 2016, Rainforest Foundation partnered with these communities to pioneer a homegrown monitoring program that used emerging data and technology to quickly detect and report illegal deforestation.
By 2017, deforestation was reduced to 0% in both communities, and in response the Peruvian state formally recognized the monitors as official forest rangers. The communities now receive payments from the government to continue and expand their forest protection as part of Peru’s program to mitigate climate change by protecting its rainforest.
Based on the success in Patria Nueva and Nuevo Saposoa, Rainforest Foundation is bringing on new partners – Columbia University and Indigenous Peoples Organization of the Eastern Amazon (ORPIO) – to scale and rigorously evaluate our grassroots approach to forest protection in 36 communities along the Napo and Amazon rivers in Northern Peru. The 250,000 hectares of forest in these communities store over 33 million metric tons of carbon in its vegetation.
How Does It All Work?
Turning Information into Action builds on a structure of regional, indigenous-run hubs that efficiently ensure information flow across a network of remote communities and engage state authorities in acting on the evidence collected by communities.Rainforest Foundation-trained indigenous technicians in the Tech and Rights Hub compile and analyze satellite data to detect possible deforestation, and then distribute reports via USB drives and email to local communities.
Monitors report to their community assemblies. Communities report information to hubs. The hubs compile all the communities’ data, inform the communities of region-wide threats, and advocate with the state.
The communities use a consensus model to decide on the appropriate response and take action. Each community is in charge. Each decides how they want to fight back against deforestation.
Rainforest Foundation and its partners (ORPIO, WRI, Columbia University) collect and analyze, and systematize the data and results to determine which interventions are working and improve the impact and efficiency of the program.
Measuring Impact - $5 a hectare (and some other numbers)
We continuously measure impact, share results, and invest in the most cost-effective actions proven to save rainforests. It is not enough to simply measure deforestation rates of the communities we work with. Instead, we continuously analyze which specific actions decrease deforestation rates. Each time an action is successful, we share this data throughout the network so that communities can hone their methods by trying out and adapting successful strategies.
Researchers from Columbia University are conducting an independent study of the program through the end of 2019. With their help, we can establish the best practices to be implemented in Peru and beyond. We believe in numbers, so here’s how the math pencils out:
Carbon capture: No land absorbs more CO2 than tropical rainforests. Annually, tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Indigenous forests absorb approximately 25% of this.
Carbon storage: While there are only about one million indigenous people living in the Amazon, their forests hold a quarter of the region’s above-ground carbon—over 30 billion metric tons. The carbon stored by these forests is equal to nearly 60% the global carbon emissions from 2017. The destruction of tropical forests releases CO2 into our atmosphere; currently 10% to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year are attributed to tropical deforestation. On the flip side, saving tropical forests long-term will capture at least 30% of global CO2 emissions.
Cost of protecting a hectare/ton of carbon: Based on investments from Rainforest Foundation and other partners in Peru, we calculate that our model of turning Information into Action can protect indigenous occupied tropical forests at a cost of $5 per hectare. That translates to less than $2 per ton of atmospheric carbon captured.
 https://rightsandresources.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Toward-a-Global-Baseline-of-Carbon-Storage-in-Collective-Lands-November-2016-RRI-WHRC-WRI-report.pdf and https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22070/EGR_2017.pdf
 Le Quéré, C. et al. (2016). Global carbon budget. Earth Systems Science Data 8, 605-649
Reach the rest of the rainforest
Forests under indigenous control maintain 2-3 times lower deforestation rates than other areas. You can help activate a vast network of remote communities to take immediate action in protecting 100s of millions of acres of indigenous land in the Amazon, protecting our climate for generations to come.