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Rainforest Connection: how recycled mobile phones are helping save the rainforest

Rainforest Connection: how recycled mobile phones are helping save the rainforest
Source: Facebook/RainforestCx

Discover how recycled cellphones and machine learning are helping indigenous peoples to protect their homelands and ecosystems from illegal logging.

Existing technology is salvaged and adapted to “listen” to the rainforest for unnatural sounds

The most impactful way to stop climate change is to save rainforests. This innovative solution can help halt illegal logging and protect rainforests by sending real-time data to those on the ground who can do something about it. Today, recycled cellphones and machine learning are assisting the Tembé people of northern Brazil to protect their homeland from illegal logging and farming activity.

Rainforest Connection: how unwanted mobile phones are helping save the rainforest The “Guardians” are hidden high up in trees for better cell service and access to sunlight for power and they listen to all the sounds of the forest around the clock. Source: Facebook/BrightVibes

Protecting the perimeter of a rainforest can mean protecting everything behind it

Since 1970, some 20% of the Amazon has been destroyed by deforestation. The indigenous Tembé people live on 2800 km² of rainforest in northern Brazil. Over 30% of their territory has been deforested by cattle ranching, fires (set by outsiders who want to farm on the land), and illegal logging. Today, recycled cell phones and machine learning are helping the Tembé protect their homeland.

Rainforest Connection (RFCx) creates acoustic monitoring systems for those who wish to end illegal deforestation in real-time. The RFCx monitoring system gives those on the ground the opportunity to protect key rainforest areas and respond to real-time alerts, while sharing large amounts of ecosystem data that help negotiate increased protections in these areas. In some cases, protecting the perimeter of a rainforest can actually mean protecting everything behind it.

Existing technology salvaged and  repurposed: an old Android phone is weatherproofed and fixed to a solar power adapter (also recycled) and external microphone. 

These devices, nicknamed “Guardians”, can hear the sounds of illegal logging up to 1 kilometer away. The Guardians are hidden high up in trees for better cell service and access to sunlight for power and they listen to all the sounds of the forest around the clock.

Rainforest Connection’s TensorFlow model uses machine learning to analyse the audio recorded by the Guardians, and learns to identify the sounds of chainsaws, logging trucks, motorbikes and signs of incursion. 

Within minutes of an identification, a real-time alert is sent to the Tembé rangers, a security force made up of villagers who can intervene or report the logging activity to the authorities.

Rainforest Connection is sharing same acoustic monitoring system with other partners fighting deforestation in five different countries, including Peru, Ecuador, and Romania.

Furthermore, the same system can be easily adapted to help stop poaching by providing rangers with real-time data and patterns of activity that allow for targeted protections in key strategic areas.

Source: Google

In 2014, Chief Naldo (centre) reached out to Topher White, founder of environmental nonprofit Rainforest Connection, and together they embarked on an ambitious project using recycled Android phones and TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine learning model, to track the sounds of illegal logging in real time.
Topher White is working closely with Chief Naldo Tembé to nip illegal activity in the bud — In 2014, Chief Naldo (centre) reached out to Topher White, founder of environmental nonprofit Rainforest Connection, and together they embarked on an ambitious project using recycled Android phones and TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine learning model, to track the sounds of illegal logging in real time. Source: Google

With this technology the Tembé have a chance to safeguard their forest and their entire way of life

Today, Chief Naldo and the tribe are canvassing their land, climbing trees to install and maintain the Guardian devices, and responding to the logging alerts they receive. Armed with this new technology, the Tembé have a chance to safeguard not only their forest but their entire way of life.

As a boy, Naldo Tembé sacrificed any semblance of a normal childhood for the sake of the rainforest. He would organise small groups of children to survey their territory for illegal loggers without his parents’ knowledge, as the task of monitoring armed loggers is dangerous for anyone, let alone a child. 

The biggest mark in my life was at the age of 8, when I went to do the first inspection [of the forest]. Back then, we heard a lot about loggers taking wood from our area, and I was outraged by seeing people stealing wood, [so] we mobilized.” Chief Naldo told Google.

He made his dedication for preserving the forest known to anyone who would listen, and his people took notice. When he turned 15, he was named chief.

“To be chief is a very heavy task, because you start to live others’ lives, not yours. And that is very tough. Even today, having been chief for many years, I haven’t really got used to it.”

Over the past 30 years, Chief Naldo and the tribe have wrestled back substantial portions of their land from the invaders, but detecting new illegal logging activity has continued to be a dangerous endeavor. 

Illegal loggers enter the Tembé land under the cover of night and can decimate hundreds of acres of forest without being detected. Until the implementation of the new system, the ever-present sounds of the rainforest would drown out the noise from the loggers’ chainsaws and trucks, making monitoring thousands of square kilometers of rainforest a nearly impossible task.

Source: Google

The devices, nicknamed “Guardians”, listen out around the clock for the sounds of illegal logging anywhere up to 1km away.
An old Android phone is affixed to a solar power adapter and external microphone The devices, nicknamed “Guardians”, listen out around the clock for the sounds of illegal logging anywhere up to 1km away. Source: Google

Topher White’s TED Talk: What can save the rainforest? Your used cell phone

Below: watch Topher White’s inspirational TED Talk: What can save the rainforest? Your used cell phone!

Topher White: What can save the rainforest? Your used cell phone The sounds of the rainforest include: the chirps of birds, the buzz of cicadas, the banter of gibbons. But in the background is the almost-always present sound of a chainsaw, from illegal loggers. Engineer Topher White shares a simple, scalable way to stop this brutal deforestation — that starts with your old cell phone. Source: YouTube/TEDTalks
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