TECH4ALL: Acting Now To Stop Our Rainforests from Disappearing



October 31, 2019


The first time I ever visited a rainforest was in Borneo. It was the noises that really struck me; however, as many people around the world know, rainforests are very much under threat. Behind the cacophony of noise I experienced in the Borneo rainforest, there were actually chainsaws in the background the entire time. These chainsaws often permeate parts of the forest that are home to a rich array of wildlife.

Making the Right Connections

Rainforest Connection is my startup, a nonprofit tech startup based in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. Our goal is to stop illegal logging using technology.

So what’s possible? How are we going to make that happen?

Our flagship product is a device that we place in trees to detect the sound of chainsaws in real time, sending them to the cloud, and then generating alerts to people on the ground who can jump on their motorcycles and stop logging events in real time.

We call these devices “Guardians”. To power these Guardians, we install solar panels in areas where sunlight penetrates the forest canopy.

However, the rainforest isn’t Silicon Valley – we have to work with what we have. There’s now pretty good cell phone service in forests, so each Guardian comprises an old Huawei smartphone, from as early as 2009 or 2010, and a microphone. The Guardians run for 24 hours a day.

Why We Do What We Do

But let’s back up for a second and talk about rainforests in general and why we want to protect them. Today, less than half of the world’s original area of rainforest remain. If the losses continue at their present rate, the world’s rainforests could disappear in just 40 years.

Moreover, deforestation accounts for almost one-fifth of all carbon emissions worldwide every year. That’s more than all the transportation from the world’s cars, trucks, ships, trains, and airplanes combined.

Up to 90% of logging in rainforests is illegal. However, illegal logging is so profitable that loggers actually build roads to reach the largest trees, which in turn encourages farms to be set up that burn the leftover wood.

You stop illegal logging, you stop the roads. You stop the roads, you can stop deforestation. And that can take a huge chunk out of the annual equation for climate change.

Sound travels relatively far in forests, so one Guardian can cover 3 square kilometers. Protecting that 3 square kilometers from deforestation is equivalent to taking 3,000 cars off the road for a year. So one decade-old Huawei smartphone with the right people on the ground can actually be equivalent to taking 3,000 cars off the road for a year. This might be the cheapest, fastest way for us to fight climate change.

Guardians in Action: Brazil

In Brazil, we see an ocean of deforestation with a few islands of intact rainforest. And one of these is the Tembe territory, which is about 2,500 square kilometers of forest that’s inhabited by an indigenous tribe. When we first met the tribe in 2015, up to 80 percent of their land was occupied by illegal loggers, illegal settlers, and drug cartels.

So, we set up the Guardian system to alert the tribe in real time when anyone encroached onto their land. They were able to wait at the end of the feeder road into the forest, seize trucks and equipment, and detain illegal loggers.

We believe that one ranger in the field can have more effect on climate change than dozens of engineers working on technology for electric vehicles.

Forging the Right Partnerships

While it’s our job is to provide technologies for people to protect their own and animals’ habitats, it’s crucial that we avoid mistakes and false alerts. That’s something that happened a lot in the past – we’d think there was a chainsaw when there wasn’t. So, we went to Huawei, who said that they can make the Guardian system more effective by using Huawei Cloud and ModelArts to construct a more precise model, which they did just two months.

And that’s what really gives us great confidence in the projects we’re running right now. Rainforest Connection is protecting 2,500 square kilometers of rainforest in 10 countries spanning 5 continents. But, we’re just getting started and we hope that more people can get involved: anyone can download the Rainforest Connection app and listen to any one of our Guardians in the field, 24/7.

Guardians in Action: Costa Rica

It’s not just chainsaws in the forest that we’re interested in – there’s a plethora of animals that make rainforests alive with noise. And we’re making use of AI and Huawei Cloud to be able to actually pick out these different animals thanks to bio acoustics. When Huawei teamed up with us, they built a model for to detect spider monkeys, an important species in the Costa Rican rainforest. As a diurnal species, spider monkeys only usually make noise in the day. When we ran the spider monkey model in June 2019, we found that they were making a lot of noise at midnight. So we listened in and heard the sound of earthquakes at around 11.20 pm, causing the spider monkeys to wake up and start yelling out to each other. Now that’s about detection and it’s an event we otherwise wouldn’t have known occurred.

That’s why we met with Huawei originally. We wanted them to help us detect spider monkeys as well as build a better chainsaw detection model. So Huawei began working on spider monkey linguistics to make it possible for us to know the emotional state of the animals. Huawei was able to put that together pretty quickly, and we’re rolling out at the end of September 2019.

But what’s next is not just about the spider monkeys. It is about the entire soundscape of the forest. So, imagine if we could listen to everything that’s happening in the forest simultaneously for all species, map it out, and display it for anyone, anywhere. We can gather this data over hours, days, weeks, months, and years, and with big data analytics techniques, we can sketch out the ecological relationship between all these species and understand things that were previously impossible.

This is what we’re building with Huawei Cloud and ModelArts.

Over the next year, we expect to have an impact on 6,000 square kilometers of forest by producing 458 years’ worth of audio. We estimate that the amount of forest we can save will be the equivalent of 6 million cars off the road, 400 million trees, and 30 million tons of CO2.

There’s people there who are in place and motivated to protect rainforests. They just need the right tools and we can make those tools together with Huawei.

Click the link for more information about the Huawei TECH4ALL initiative.

This is a guest post by Topher White.

Topher White is Founder and CEO of Rainforest Connection. Topher has experience building systems for large and small startups as well as international science projects, including four years working on nuclear fusion at ITER, in France. He has received multiple accolades for his work, including being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, a Draper-Richards-Kaplan (DRK) Fellow and an “Engineering Hero” by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Topher’s background is primarily in Physics, software development and Communication, having received a degree in Physics at Kenyon College and going on to work for years at SLAC Natl Accelerator Lab (High Energy Physics) and the ITER Organization (Nuclear Fusion) in France. Along the way, he also served as CTO for two startups in San Francisco, where he obtained industry-level experience in software development — the foundation of the Rainforest Connection platform.

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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