Mobile app uses real-time satellite data to strengthen forest and land rights

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A mobile app launched on Tuesday will allow indigenous people, forest managers and law enforcement officials in remote areas to monitor deforestation and fires regardless of connectivity, according to developers.

“Forest Watcher” is designed to allow offline access to real-time satellite maps and data collected by Global Forest Watch, a U.S.-based charity that monitors changes in forest cover.

The app displays forest changes on mobile devices by using their internal global positioning system (GPS) which does not rely on Internet connectivity.

After installing the app and downloading maps, it directs users to areas where forests are being cleared, based on data collected by Global Forest Watch. They can capture photos and enter data about deforestation and upload them when back online.

Lilian Pintea of conservation charity The Jane Goodall Institute, one of Global Forest Watch’s partners in the project, tested the app in a national park in Uganda.

Using offline maps on their phones, forest rangers uncovered a logging operation in a protected area after checking an alert received from the app.

“One of the forest rangers took a picture, reported the case to the authorities and they accepted the picture in a court case,” Pintea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The app will initially provide weekly satellite deforestation data in 17 tropical countries, including Brazil and other Latin American countries.

“This changes the situation because you might be able to act. Weekly alerts make the information actionable,” said Pintea.

Pintea said the app also allows local communities living in remote areas to draw the boundaries of their land and report encroachments and illegal use of resources.

Global Forest Watch aims to make data from all tropical countries available by the end of the year via the app, which is available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Indonesian.

Rachael Petersen, a team leader at Global Forest Watch, said the app will be a key tool for Brazil to protect the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation has been increasing since 2016 after a decade of decline.

She said it could be combined with low-cost tools, such as drones, to be even more effective.

Global Forest Watch also hopes the app will push governments to strengthen law enforcement to protect the environment.

“We are happy with the tool, but data information is only part of the equation. We need governments to enforce their law. Governments have to ultimately take action,” Petersen said.