The rainforest is calling...with its own phone

To combat illegal logging in the Amazon trees get connected

Rainforest Connection founder Topher White. His high­tech device made from discarded smartphones listens for trucks, chainsaws and other sounds of encroaching loggers. When installed high up in tree canopies, Rainforest Connection hardware is considered virtually invisible. Photograph: Rainforest Connection

Amid the jungle cacophony of rustling leaves, buzzing bugs, howling monkeys and shrieking parrots, another, more menacing sound can be heard: a revving engine and the crush of truck tires that could potentially silence the forest symphony forever.

In a remote patch of the Amazon rainforest, members of an indigenous tribe are hoping that a high-tech device that listens for the trucks, chainsaws and other telltale sounds of encroaching loggers can help save them and their jungle home.

Made from discarded smartphones and hidden in the tree canopy, the device is the brainchild of physicist-turned-forest crusader Topher White. His San Francisco-based nonprofit, Rainforest Connection, has partnered with the Tembe people of Brazil's Pará state on the northern edge of the Amazon, ground zero in the battle for the future of the world's largest rainforest.

“The Tembe believe they’re fighting against annihilation, so the stakes are really high,” White said at the start of a months-long field test on the Tembe’s reserve, where members of the 1,000-strong tribe have clashed in recent months with an armed henchmen of ranchers who are squeezing in on their territory from both sides. “Failure isn’t really much of an option, even on the first try.”


Despite what White calls the “rough cell network” in the area-the Tembe rely on jerry-rigged antennas to generate even the weakest of signals-the first tests have proven hopeful. Just hours after it was installed, a device successfully picked up the sound of a passing car and generated an alert to White’s phone.

Once the system is up and running, with devices installed along the perimeter of the 6,000 square-kilometre reserve, the idea is that alerts will be sent in real time to the roughly 30 tribe members who are the Tembe’s designated “rangers,” charged with repelling invaders.

The vehicle that triggered the initial alert “wasn’t a logging truck, it was just a car passing,” said White, “but it’s really exciting because it shows that the system can and does work.”

White (33) had the idea for the device while on holidays in Indonesia in 2011. He was volunteering at a sanctuary for gibbons, medium-sized apes that are among the most endangered primates on earth.

To give the gibbon a fighting chance, he knew their shrinking habitat had to be protected from illegal loggers. But how to stop the loggers if the forest itself drowns out the roar of their chainsaws?

“I got to thinking that the best way of doing this would be to listen for the sounds of chainsaws, pick them up automatically from the forest and be able to figure out where the chainsaws were coming from,” White said. “There was pretty good cellphone service, so I thought I could build a solution” using that.

The device he constructed looks like a daisy, with a weather-proofed cellphone at the centre from which solar panels radiate out, to charge it. Attached to tree trunks some 35 meters above the ground, the smartphone picks up ambient sound within a radius of about 3 kilometres and transmits it to the cloud, where software programmed to recognize the sound of chainsaws sends an alert to park rangers’ phones when such noises are detected.

In 2013, White went back to Indonesia, to another gibbon reserve, to test his invention. The device worked so well that within 48 hours of installation it led to the apprehension of would-be loggers.

“Since then, because it’s a pretty small reserve, they were able to leverage that (first apprehension) to keep loggers out. We were not’t able to detect any more illegal activity,” he said. “So that for us it is an impressive, fantastic event-but it’s hard to think of that as a great source of data.”

Last year, the group conducted another field test in a vast, Forest Stewardship Council-certified logging concession in Cameroon. Under FSC rules, the logging company that holds the concession for the 7,000 square-kilometre plot is allowed to fell three trees per hectare in exchange for protecting the forest from loggers and poachers. The reality on the ground, however, falls dismally short of that goal.

“The reality is they have this huge area that they’re not able to protect,” White said.

And while in theory Rainforest Connection’s device could prove a vital tool for protecting the plot, the poor Internet and cellphone networks proved major stumbling blocks. They’ve gone back to the drawing board to try to engineer a better solution, and another field test is scheduled for later this year.

Despite their size-Rainforest Connection is a two-man operation, aided by a cadre of dedicated volunteers-the organization has big ambitions.

“We want to show that this is something that can be used elsewhere,” said White, speaking by cellphone from a town outside the Tembe reservation. “The best way to do this is by working with the tribes. The underlying thesis is, if you want to protect the Amazon, it’s best to work with the people whose very existence is defined by there being a forest.”

“It’s the difference between fighting against annihilation and fighting against the destruction of the environment,” said White. “Most of the people we work for are quite passionate about that, but the urgency we see from the Tembe is especially palpable.”

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Published as part of Impact Journalism Day, June 20th, 2015