Satellite data for rainforest conservation

The rainforest in Borneo is disappearing through illegal logging and forest fires, as well as the establishment of plantations. Because of this, the orangutans’ natural habitat is rapidly vanishing. The World Wildlife Fund is encouraging governments, organisations and companies to take action on the basis of satellite data provided by Dutch company SarVision.

Satellite data cannot be disputed. From space it is easy to see illegal roads that have been built throughout the rainforest. Starting with the felling of the first trees, deforestation is complete within just a couple of years.

‘We have been working with the Heart of Borneo programme since 2007,’ says Hans Beukeboom, senior advisor at WWF, specialising in the Asia region. ‘It is a joint initiative by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia to preserve the forested area in Borneo’s interior. Using satellite data we monitor what is happening in the region. Equipped with this evidence, we can advise governments, or in some cases reprimand them. If we see evidence of logging or the conversion of forest to pasture land without the necessary authorisation, for example.’

The Dutch company SarVision delivers data that are easy to use. The WWF combines the data with information collected on the ground in order to come to a balanced opinion. ‘We are not a research institute, but by working together with reputable parties such as SarVision and Wageningen University, we are able to produce objective data.’

The approach seems to be working. Over the past six years, the rate of deforestation in the heart of Borneo has slowed down compared to other areas. But that is not enough for the WWF. ‘We are lobbying, providing insights into the current situation and drawing conclusions if plantations appear that were not part of the agreed land-use planning, so that local bodies can intervene.’  

Satellite data are invaluable to nature conservation, says Beukeboom. Not only in investigating conversion and logging. ‘With the information gathered by SarVision we can also estimate the level of CO2 storage in a given forest or region, map land use and conduct research into climate change. Another threat to the orangutans’ natural habitat.’  

The WWF believes that the use of satellite data will only increase in the future. The data is becoming increasingly accurate, just as the mathematical models and methods behind it, and the number of applications.