Why does the rainforest matter so much?
Although we all know that the rainforests are important and worth saving, it’s remarkable how little thought we tend to put into why.
- Deforestation is the second biggest contributor to climate change, accounting for more greenhouse gas than the entire planets planes trains, cars, trucks and ships combined. It totals around 17% of all global carbon emissions.
- As much as 90% of the logging that happens in the rainforest is illegal, according to Interpol.
- Depending on who you ask, downgrading rainforest to pasture and less productive land causes between $3-5 trillion in economic losses every single year.
- Deforestation of the rainforest directly contributes to historic droughts in major cities across South America, affecting upwards of 20 million people.
How we can prevent illegal logging?
One of the biggest problems with preventing logging is the density and volume of the forest. There are plenty of people in the rainforest – many more than you might think – but catching loggers is extremely difficult because it’s so difficult to see or hear them. The rainforest is incredibly loud, providing a home for millions of animals, and hearing the roar of the chainsaws over the screams of the macaws is incredibly difficult.
The natural response to this is that we should create new ultra-sensitive cameras or microphones, and place them all over the rainforest. But the rainforest, despite being cut down, is enormous, and the local people simply don’t have the infrastructure and disposable income to be constantly investing in expensive new technologies that inevitably come under attack from illegal loggers.
How do old phones come into it?
One thing that might surprise you is the rainforests tend to have excellent connectivity. Hundreds of miles from the road, in the middle of the rainforest you can still check Facebook. There’s no electricity, you can’t charge your phone out there, but you can send a Snapchat. Marvels of the modern world, eh?
Once a miracle of tech innovation, smartphones have now become a fairly mundane part of lives around the globe. Technology is advancing so rapidly that our phones are being constantly replaced, meaning that an old smartphone is now a pretty cheap piece of equipment. Globally, we throw hundreds of millions of them every year.
So, how do we use this abundance of obsolete smartphones to help us prevent illegal loggers, save the rainforests from disappearing, and help prevent climate change? Well, modern phones have advanced listening sensors in them, advanced enough to hear far more than the human ear alone.
The biggest hurdle to overcome for the team researching how to make this theory a reality was to find a way to power the phones deep in the canopies of the rainforest. The phones need to be placed high enough to extend across a large area, and avoid damage from wildlife and loggers. The team at Rainforest Connection worked hard on developing a solar panel system that could be used to power the phones, even through the thick foliage, eventually come up with a unique design built from recycled byproducts of an industrial process.
Does the system work?
The team that developed the tech tested it in Indonesia at a gibbon reserve threatened by illegal logging. Within just a couple of days the phones were able to pick up illegal chainsaw noises and alert the researchers in real-time by email. When the illegal loggers were approached, they reacted not in anger but in surprise – until this point, their operation had never been discovered and threatened. As Topher White described it:
“For them, it was such a surprise — they had never, ever been interrupted before — that it was such an impressive event for them, that we’ve heard from our partners they have not been back since. They were, in fact, great guys. They showed us how the entire operation works, and what they really convinced us on the spot was that if you can show up in real time and stop people, it’s enough of a deterrent they won’t come back.”
From a small research project, this ingenious use of throwaway technology to save one of the most valuable resources our planet has to offer, has spread around the world.
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