How satellite technology can prevent deforestation…

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It has been a while!


For the past year and a half, I have been working at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome.

At the FAO, I was working on an exciting partnership with Google Earth Outreach, Google’s non-profit programme to promote the use of technology for positive environmental impact, they developed a software product to map and analyse global forest cover ad land-use change all over the world using very high-resolution satellite images.


The software is called Collect Earth, and it integrates Google Earth and Earth Engine platforms. Thanks to the team’s hard work in promoting it, government institutions — in particular forestry ministries in developing countries — are using it to monitor forest cover and track land use changes over time. Collect Earth is featured amongst other innovative softwares on  Google Earth Engine case studies.

The new technology radically improves developing countries’ ability to keep track of what is happening to their forests. These are an essential contributor to efforts to fight global warming. Previously, governments often had to organise lengthy field trips to measure forest cover, including by manually counting trees.


Now, by contrast, thanks to the super-sharp images available from satellites, plus a freely available software that enables simple analysis and tracking, their ability to assess forest cover has dramatically advanced.

The project is particularly relevant for cocoa-producing countries and for companies that use cocoa to make chocolate. Cocoa and palm oil are the primary ingredients in mass-market chocolate. Production of these two crops is often a major contributor to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and loss of soil nutrients. Rural communities and commercial enterprises are tempted to cut down virgin forests to plant more cocoa trees as soils become infertile and trees get infected with pests and diseases due to poor agricultural practices. Rising demand for cocoa is an added incentive to plant on new land.


But such action has widespread impacts. The clearance of forests in Central Africa to make way for agricultural production affects the climate of West Africa because the Central African forests help to incubate the weather systems to provide West Africa with rain. Less rain means less cocoa, because rainfall is the most important climatic factor in cocoa production.

In Ghana, one of the world’s largest cocoa producers, increases in production have often been a result of more extensive, rather than more intensive farming. When I visited Ghana two years ago, I was astonished to see how cocoa production which had originally started in Ghana’s Eastern Region had shifted westwards as low cocoa yields led farmers to migrate in search of new and more fertile lands.

Cocoa farm Western region

Unscrupulous commercial companies are wreaking similar damage elsewhere. Last year, United Cacao, a publicly-traded commercial producer of cocoa, was reported to have cleared more than 2,000 hectares of trees in intact areas of the Peruvian Amazon. The company, which promotes itself as a producer of ethical, sustainable chocolate, claimed that it intended to practice sustainable agriculture on what was previously degraded farm land. However, the World Resources Institute drew on satellite imagery, laser scans and data provided by its interactive online forest monitoring and alert tool Global Forest Watch to show that the area was previously primary forest.

Satellite image of area cleared for United Cacao plantation. Graphic by Global Forest Watch.

It is possible for cocoa to grow sustainably. The natural habitat of cacao trees is the rainforest, surrounded by high canopy trees to provide shade, fertile soils, and conserve natural nutrients. Sustainability programs such as The World Cocoa Foundation Cocoa Livelihoods Program and the Cocoa Improvement Program funded by NGOs, chocolate manufacturers and cocoa processors together with local governments are helping to tackle these issues by focusing on increasing agricultural production on already used land rather than encroaching upon more carbon-rich forest.


Government institutions, meanwhile, face global pressure for the accurate reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. Tools like Global Forest Watch and Collect Earth can help companies and governments quantify greenhouse gas emissions, making clearer the impact of land and forest conversion for agricultural production. An interesting article written by Global Forest Watch explains how carbon foot prints for chocolate can now be measured at the heart of its supply chain.


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