Paper to pixels: How technology is helping unlock the secrets of Congo’s forests

In the middle of one of the largest forests on Earth, miles from the nearest town, a tree crashes to the ground. Another soon follows it, then another, and another. Before long, an area the size of 600 American football fields is transformed into a gaping hole in the trees in central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — a hole big enough to catch the eye of a researcher hundreds of miles away in the country’s capital.

At his computer in the World Resources Institute (WRI) office in Kinshasa, Alain Engunda is poring over an online map called the DRC Forest Atlas, a platform that combines government land-use records with near real-time satellite data from Global Forest Watch that reveals where forests are likely disappearing. As he clicks on the forest concession leased from the government by the logging company CFT, he notices something odd: a clearing that is expanding much too rapidly to be the result of legal logging activities.

When Engunda contacts the company, his discovery is news to its staff. Their concession is almost twice the size of Rhode Island, and with few roads, it’s nearly impossible to monitor everything that occurs within. When the Congolese government sends in a team to investigate, they find that someone has set up a palm oil plantation on the company’s land. Without the Forest Atlas, these activities would likely have gone undetected for months.

The tech revolution may be booming in African countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, but  poverty and limited telecommunications links, particularly in rural areas, makes communication within the DRC complicated and often painstakingly slow — to the detriment of both people and the environment. However, as technological innovations from solar panels to online mapping tools to camera traps extend their reach, this is starting to change.

By supporting the use of digital tools that are adapted for the region’s challenging landscape, the U.S. government-funded Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) and partners are shedding light on what’s happening in this valuable forest — and working to keep it standing.

Problem: No one talks to each other

While mobile phones are ubiquitous in the DRC, only about 9 percent of the country’s 83 million people, who live scattered across an area the size of Western Europe, have access to electricity. When you venture out of the cities, that percentage drops to 2 percent.

In Bikoro, DRC, WWF staff and partners examine a restaurant bill by cell phone light. Outside of the country’s large cities, few residents have reliable access to electricity. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
In Bikoro, DRC, WWF staff and partners examine a restaurant bill by cell phone light. Outside of the country’s large cities, few residents have reliable access to electricity. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

This disconnection isn’t limited to the power grid. Before WRI built the DRC Forest Atlas in collaboration with the national government, the country’s ministries often didn’t map land use or share information with each other, let alone the people living in these forests, and therefore no one really knew which lands were allotted for which activities. There were “logging concessions that overlapped with mining concessions, mining concessions that overlapped with agricultural concessions,” remembers Augustin Mpoyi, executive director of CODELT, a Congolese NGO. “And there was a lot of conflict between the users, and with a negative impact on the rights of the local communities.”

Part of the issue was that most government documents existed only in stacks of paper housed in different ministries and provincial offices. To build each national Forest Atlas (there are currently nine, including six in Central Africa), WRI staff work with the government ministries responsible for forests to collect and digitize maps, contracts and other records that outline the boundaries of lands such as logging concessions, protected areas and community-managed forests. By overlaying these maps, users can see where potential conflicts among competing land uses may arise.

Old maps sit in the headquarters of Mabali Scientific Reserve in northwestern DRC. Insufficient funding and limited access to technology are chronic challenges for successful protected area management. Until recently, much of the country’s data was still stored only on paper. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Old maps sit in the headquarters of Mabali Scientific Reserve in northwestern DRC. Insufficient funding and limited access to technology are chronic challenges for successful protected area management. Until recently, much of the country’s data was still stored only on paper. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

The tool can also help the government enforce its own policies. For example, after the DRC declared a moratorium on new logging titles in 2005, WRI helped the national government map and review the country’s 156 existing logging concessions. This process ultimately helped lead to the cancellation of logging titles on more than 12 million hectares of land — an area more than four times the size of Rwanda. Similarly, in the Republic of Congo, 16 mining permits were recently cancelled by the government after the Republic of Congo Forest Atlas helped reveal that they overlapped with Odzala-Kokoua National Park and a logging concession.

Another tool that has vastly improved data sharing in Central Africa and elsewhere is the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART). This open-source, data management software system, designed for protected area managers, is being increasingly adopted by national governments with the support of conservation organizations such as CARPE implementing partners Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The tool works with a mobile app called CyberTracker, within which users record field observations, from the trumpeting of an elephant to a recently vacated gorilla nest to the remnants of a poacher’s campfire. Its icon-based system makes the app easy to use, even for people who can’t read or write. It also helps to standardize data collection by eliminating past obstacles such as illegible handwriting, inconsistent wording and vague location descriptions.

When CyberTracker users return to the office, they can quickly upload their data from their mobile devices to a computer installed with SMART software, transforming spreadsheets into maps and charts showing where conservation efforts are improving and where problems need immediate attention. In addition, a server-based version of SMART allows all users with Internet connections to share their data. This ensures that findings from unrelated sites — for example, wildlife surveys conducted by different organizations in distant protected areas — can be easily compared. ICCN, the DRC’s protected area authority, is now using SMART to share and centralize data on threats and wildlife presence across all protected areas in order to have a more accurate picture of the state of the country’s national parks.

A solar panel powers a farmer’s home in Iyembe Monene, DRC. Although the DRC remains among the least electrified countries on Earth, solar and other renewable energy sources are increasingly allowing rural residents to “leapfrog” infrastructure challenges and improve their daily lives. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
A solar panel powers a farmer’s home in Iyembe Monene, DRC. Although the DRC remains among the least electrified countries on Earth, solar and other renewable energy sources are increasingly allowing rural residents to “leapfrog” infrastructure challenges and improve their daily lives. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Problem: Too much land, too little time and money

Since the DRC became independent from Belgium in 1960, it has suffered two civil wars and decades of political strife. Conflict has taken a toll on the country’s infrastructure: Steamboats rust on river banks, bridges dissolve into the water below, and roads are absorbed by the forest once again. Add roving armed militias in the east, high poverty levels that force many to travel on foot, and seasonal rains that turn dirt roads into deep, tire-sucking mud for months on end, and you begin to understand why this place is so hard to traverse.

Steamboats rust on river banks, bridges dissolve into the water below, and roads are absorbed by the forest once again. Add roving armed militias in the east, high poverty levels that force many to travel on foot, and seasonal rains that turn dirt roads into deep, tire-sucking mud for months on end, and you begin to understand why this place is so hard to traverse.

While inaccessibility makes the forest more difficult to penetrate, it also makes it harder to protect. The DRC has protected areas the size of other countries, yet many are under-staffed and under-funded.

For example, Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DRC only has about 250 ecoguards — less than half the number of rangers needed to protect the world’s largest population of eastern lowland gorillas and other wildlife from poachers in a forest more than seven times the size of New York City. In reality, about one-third of the park’s lowlands are outside of the ecoguards’ control, infiltrated by armed criminal groups who target wildlife for food.

Without proper tools to help park managers prioritize where to send their limited staff and resources, the odds of nabbing a poacher are like trying to catch an antelope by placing an unbaited snare in the middle of a field.

Databases that aggregate and analyze data can aid prioritization by revealing trends more quickly than analog methods. Until recently, ecoguard patrols and wildlife surveys were still being documented on paper. This information was then entered into a database by hand, a process that could take up to five days for a 10-day patrolling trip or a monthlong wildlife survey mission. Now, when the user returns to park headquarters, he or she syncs their device with the SMART database.

“Once you plug in and transfer the data, it takes an average of 30 minutes,” estimates Patrick Musikami, the SMART focal point for Kahuzi-Biega.

Dr. Fiona Maisels, a WCS conservation scientist who has spent decades collecting data in the Central African rainforest, says that “even the very best typists make one mistake every 100 keystrokes, so this technology has prevented hundreds of thousands of extra errors that would have had to be caught in the verification process.”

 Eyes in the sky

Airplanes may be more than a century old, but they’re still breaking barriers in the fight against poaching and other illegal activities in Central Africa’s protected areas.

Since May 2017, WCS has been conducting regular air patrols of the Republic of Congo’s Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, one of the few places on Earth where forest elephant and gorilla populations remain relatively stable. From the six-seater Cessna, the pilot and a team of observers frequently spot poachers in areas of the forest where no people are allowed. The pilot radios the park managers, who then send in a ground team of ecoguards to apprehend the poachers. In addition to aiding law enforcement, the WCS team hopes that the mere possibility of being spotted from the plane will deter would-be poachers. So far in 2018, the plane has flown more than 12,000 kilometers over the park. 

Hundreds of miles away in the Central African Republic’s Chinko protected area, planes are becoming a vital link between satellites and communities. The park is a popular dry season destination and thoroughfare for migrant herders from Sudan, who frequently set fires ahead of their cattle herds to open up new grazing areas and chase away disease-carrying tsetse flies. 

When fires around the park are detected by NASA satellites, African Parks  (supported by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the national government) sends an ultralight aircraft to determine whether the fire is the result of these human activities or natural causes. If the former, leaflets are dropped from the aircraft displaying the protected area borders and a brief explanation that poaching and cattle grazing are prohibited within it. Herds that continue into the park are met by teams of local nomadic pastoralists employed by the park as sensitization officers; they talk with the incoming herders about the protected area boundaries, and even guide them and their livestock through designated corridors bordering the park. 

For the past two years, the entire protected area has remained almost entirely free of cattle herders, with fewer than 10 groups entering the area and remaining for less than 48 hours. Since remaining nearly entirely free of cattle herders, the park’s management has noticed an increase in wildlife populations, including giant eland, hippos, waterbuck, buffalo and others.

Although SMART was originally created for law enforcement patrols, a plug-in has enabled the tool to also store data from wildlife surveys, which use different collection methods than ranger patrols. In northern Republic of Congo, a survey using SMART for data collection recently found that great ape and forest elephant populations in and around Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park are stable — a rarity in the region, and a testament to the area’s effective law enforcement and conservation management.

Each protected area adapts to resource limitations in different ways. In the DRC’s Itombwe Nature Reserve, for example, WWF and ICCN have trained and set up community-led patrols of the protected area to help make up for the insufficient number of ecoguards. Community members collect and share raw data that is then uploaded to the SMART platform by the ecoguards; they also talk with their neighbors about hunting regulations in and around the protected area. In the future, the community patrols will hopefully be equipped with the SMART technology themselves and thus have a bigger role in patrolling and monitoring. In the meantime, this program has fostered more trust between local authorities and ICCN regarding management of shared resources.

SMART makes other things easier, too. It can help assess how well conservation goals are being met, such as patrolling priority areas of the park. As the ecoguards’ GPS devices track their movements, the patrol data hold them accountable for monitoring the areas under their domain; one day this data could be used to reward ecoguards who patrol the greatest distances with cash bonuses or other incentives. And by tracking gorilla movements and revealing trends, the SMART database also allows wildlife tour guides to better predict where the gorillas will be on a given day, reducing the amount of strenuous hiking tourists need to do before finding the animals and thus enhancing visitor satisfaction.

Just as SMART helps monitor land from the forest floor, the Forest Atlas does the same from the sky. The platform overlays official documents with weekly satellite-based forest loss and daily fire alerts courtesy of the University of Maryland and NASA. This provides a starting point to help Forest Atlas users investigate where forest cover change is happening, such as when Alain Engunda spotted the deforestation in CFT’s concession in 2017.

In the words of Natasha Sanguinetti, CFT’s chief operating officer, “It’s not possible without, actually, the system that you’ve developed, for us to easily manage and follow these sort of things.”(See how Engunda made this discovery in the short video below.)

Problem: Limited local expertise

Many other tech-based tools here and across the world are helping to expand what we know about the natural world at unprecedented rates: camera traps, drones, artificial intelligence. But no technology can be effective without adequately trained people to use it.

Before 2000, there were almost no local institutions in Central Africa with both the knowledge and equipment necessary to adequately monitor the region’s forests. The little data available came from low-resolution satellite photos and global-level studies by foreign researchers, and were often too broad or unreliable to be much use on the ground.

In 2017 alone, CARPE partners led SMART training for 236 staff from ICCN. The tool is now used in CARPE-supported landscapes across Central Africa, not to mention many other sites across the tropics and beyond.

While SMART software and training materials are free, the data ecoguards collect is closely guarded by national governments. As for the Forest Atlas, all its information is free and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. It’s hard to overstate how unusual this is — particularly for a government initiative — in a region where secrecy is the norm and information is power. Across Central Africa, WRI trains government officials, NGO staffers and journalists to use the Forest Atlas in order to drive more transparent and responsible decision-making about forest management. WRI and ministry partners also develop offline materials such as posters of the Forest Atlas data and distribute them to stakeholders without reliable Internet connections.

In addition, the Congolese NGO OSFAC (Observatoire Satellital des Forêts d’Afrique Centrale) is working to fill the local knowledge gap. Trained by the University of Maryland and other mostly American institutions, its staff have become experts not only at geographic information systems (GIS) and interpreting satellite data, but also at linking what we see from the sky to what’s happening in the dirt. For example, in February 2016, satellite data revealed that more than 25,000 hectares of forest were lost in a fire in the Republic of Congo. When the OSFAC team went in to investigate, they were able to determine that the fire, though likely started by humans, was exacerbated by a drought.

An OSFAC researcher examines satellite maps in Kinshasa, DRC. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
An OSFAC researcher examines satellite maps in Kinshasa, DRC. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

OSFAC disseminates its findings for free to anyone who requests them. In addition to UMD, OSFAC frequently collaborates with CARPE partners WRI, WWF, the African Wildlife Foundation, NASA and the U.S. Forest Service, and now conducts its own trainings; about 95 percent of the DRC’s GIS users were trained in one of OSFAC’s two training labs.

“In Central Africa, there are not many agencies like OSFAC … At the beginning, nothing existed,” says Dr. Landing Mane, OSFAC’s director. “It’s a success story for the CARPE program in the region, helping one organization to become the center of excellence like this, which now is helping others do the same.”

More awareness — and fewer places to hide

The spread of technologies like these across the region has not been seamless. Technical snags like frequent power outages, overtaxed computers and too few mobile devices per ecoguard unit are still obstacles. Then there’s the overarching challenge of transforming all this data collection into better ecosystem management.

Improved monitoring purely for science’s sake isn’t enough; in this increasingly threatened landscape, those in power need to be willing and have the tools to take action based on what researchers discover. So far, this has been a bit of a sticking point in places like the CFT concession, where the logging company is still waiting for the government to penalize the investor who cleared land for oil palm within its concession.

Here’s the good news: As the Forest Atlas, SMART and other tech-based tools help make what’s happening in Central Africa’s forests more transparent, there are fewer places for those who are unsustainably exploiting it to hide — and more ways than ever before to get forest data in front of the people who need it most.

About the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE)

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) CARPE program supports initiatives to improve the management of the Congo Basin’s biodiversity and natural resources. Since 1995, the program has invested millions of dollars in protecting the massive forest sometimes called Earth’s “second lung” while providing local people with economic alternatives to overexploiting it. 

CARPE is implemented in collaboration with African Parks, African Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Maryland, the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund and other partners. Learn more

Video clips at top of page: Gorilla tracker inputs data into CyberTracker app in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo (credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS); drone footage of Sangha River, Republic of Congo (credit: Forrest Hogg/WCS); young gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park (credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS); ecoguards in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC (credit: Molly Bergen /WCS/WWF/WRI); men paddle along the edge of Lac Tumba in a pirogue (dugout canoe) in Ntondo, DRC (credit: Molly Bergen /WCS/WWF/WRI); gorilla tracker inputs data into CyberTracker app in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park (credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS); drone footage of road near Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park (credit: Forrest Hogg/WCS); Batwa women dancing by car headlights in Ntondo, DRC (credit: Molly Bergen /WCS/WWF/WRI).

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