Combatting Deforestation Using Satellite Technology

Export commodities, like palm oil and cocoa, are often responsible for tropical deforestation. And in countries like Côte d’Ivoire, deforestation is now threatening the country’s economic future because of climate change impacts. With a lack of law enforcement, encroachments into forests to produce export commodities are not always located or sanctioned.

But food industry companies are increasingly trying to source these commodities more responsibly. However, reliable audits of their sustainability commitments have been challenging because of the large areas, combined with limited surveillance personnel. This is about to change.

As everyone knows, gaining altitude can offer a unique perspective. More efficient than drones, an advanced combination of optical and radar satellite technology that monitors canopy cover to the nearest tree is offering up a new and innovative solution. This unbiased imagery service assists field operatives who can now act rapidly and prevent farmers from cutting trees and settling in forbidden sites like protected forests, parks and reserves. It also assists in identifying and penalizing the deforestation perpetrator.

Here are two examples of operating technologies worth highlighting:

  • One company in geospatial services offers comprehensive forest and land cover monitoring products. The primary data sources for the service portfolio are high resolution (HR) optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite images from the Sentinel and Landsat satellites. The service allows both the monitoring of periodic land and forest cover status and changes, as well as a continuous forest monitoring and tracking of disturbances. This technology is currently being used in Côte d’Ivoire to do a 9,000 km2 land-use analysis that will be used to inform its reforestation activities. They will include airborne laser scanning and hyper-spectral imaging to do the measurements on biomass and forest canopy cover once the trees start to grow. The seedlings are included in the Tropical Tree Tracking and Tracing (Triple T) geolocation system, also based on mobile and satellite technologies.

  • Another example is a radar satellite imagery expert who has launched an innovative satellite service, in partnership with the aeronautics and space company, Airbus, and the non-profit organization, Earthworm. It provides unprecedented accuracy because of a combination of 1.5-meter resolution images from SPOT Airbus satellites and a radar that cuts through cloud cover, allowing year-round monitoring. It also means that they can easily differentiate between crop types and between replanting and deforestation. Ferrero and Nestlé have already successfully implemented this tool in a pilot project related to palm oil that helped them verify the impact on their supply chain in Asia.

Let’s hope that these innovations will soon be implemented in Africa so we can transform the production practices in the cocoa sector. These technologies complement monitoring on the ground, as well as offer a useful tool in reversing deforestation, improving observation accuracy and providing extremely valuable measurements for long-term tracking. Companies will now be able to irrefutably demonstrate their ambitious sustainability pledges concerning commodity sourcing, or they will be discredited and run the risk that nobody will buy from them. Hopefully, this new technology will pave the way for a transition to decouple forest degradation from commodity production.


Thomas Yapo

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