Tracking The Trees: How Jane Goodall Is Using Tech To Conserve Forests In Uganda


From ITU News

Dr. Jane Goodall is best known for her groundbreaking work in deciphering the behaviour of primates.

But what is her connection to the world of information and communication technologies (ICTs)?

For several years, the primatologist and conservation activist has been working with the tree-planting search engine Ecosia to create ‘forest corridors’ in Uganda.

Technology plays a key role in their solution to conserve nature, said Goodall and Ecosia’s chief tree planting officer Pieter Van Midwoud during a session at last year’s virtual Web Summit 2020.

Ecosia and the Jane Goodall Institute work with local people in Uganda to plant trees so that corridors can be established between forest patches.

“Chimpanzees are endangered and are losing their habitat. As forest areas get fragmented with roads, we need corridors to link one forest to another to exchange genetic material,” said Goodall. With trees absorbing carbon dioxide, she called it a win-win situation.

Tracking the forest and the trees

An important element of planting trees is to check the results, said Van Midwoud. His team monitors forest disturbances on a mobile phone app and maintains a consistent database.

“There’s an app to map where trees have been planted. These are recorded on the phone. After three years, we go back and monitor how the trees are doing,” he explained.

In the app’s backend, data points for a map of millions of trees are slowly accumulating.

Satellite imagery is also used to keep track of the condition of the trees.

“The important thing is the right tree is planted at the right time of the year and it is looked after,” noted Goodall. “We have to send people back to check,” she added.

Goodall also noted the initiative to grow, restore and conserve 1 trillion trees around the world, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020.

Van Midwoud’s Ecosia search engine uses advertising revenue from searches to plant trees where they are needed the most.

He highlighted that planting trees are not a replacement for protecting existing forests.

“It’s not either or. We are losing four million hectares of forests every year. We need to learn to restore. Protecting existing forests is just as important,” he said.

In the Ugandan context as well, restoration is not just about planting. “The trees are monitored after half a year. What is important about restoring is the socio-economic net,” Van Midwoud explained. The project team works closely with locals to understand how they live, make money and why trees are cut for charcoal and sugarcane, he added.

Technology: A source of hope

For Goodall, the quest to conserve forests began in 1990 when she saw the loss of forest cover while flying over the Gombe National Park in equatorial Africa. That’s when it hit her that they had to find ways to live while protecting the land and trees. “There were more people living there than the land could support,” she recalled. “People have come to understand that protecting the environment is not just for wildlife but for themselves,” Goodall added.

Van Midwoud said it’s not just high-end technology that can help save nature. “When I think about technology, it is also low tech that’s important. One example is restoration agriculture with naturally accumulated nutrients. Low tech solutions are as much needed as high tech, and then we can connect to satellites to monitor landscapes,” he said.

Goodall also finds technology and human intellect as reasons for hope.

“Trees can survive if planted at the right time and in the right place,” she added. Goodall went on to point out how the time window to do this is closing. “We need to stop poisoning soils, animals and ourselves,” she cautioned, calling for a better relationship with nature and sustainable green economies. “We must save nature. We need technology and communities to do this,” Goodall concluded.

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