Technology has become a headache for those who indiscriminately clear forest in the Peruvian Amazon. Until a few years ago, it was thought that deforesting an area of primary forest in a secluded, remote area could not be discovered by authorities or experts. Today, the use of high-resolution satellite images confirms that it is possible to detect in real time where forests are being cleared. You can even determine the main drivers. The Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, through more than 50 reports published between April of 2015 and November of 2016, has contributed to the use of the technology and updated the data of the historical record of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. The total figure is enough to send a cold chill down the spine: 1.8 million hectares of Amazonian forests were lost between 2001 and 2015.
Peaks of loss occurred in 2005, 2009, and 2014. While official figures show a decline in deforestation levels, a preliminary estimate for 2016 by MAAP indicates that the problem has not changed much compared to 2014, the year in which one of the highest levels of forest loss was recorded —more than 177,000 hectares.
In February, MAAP presented a second report called Synthesis #2: "Patterns and Drivers of Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon," in which it outlined six of the main causes of forest loss: deforestation and soil degradation, small and medium-scale agriculture, large-scale agriculture, pasture for livestock, gold mining, coca cultivation, and road construction.
Small-scale agriculture, which develops in areas with less than five hectares, is responsible for 80 percent of the deforestation recorded in the Peruvian Amazon, between 2001 and 2015. Meanwhile, medium-scale agriculture can occupy between five and 50 hectares and represents 16 percent. According to Matt Finer, MAAP's forestry researcher, "The trend for deforestation remains problematic; we are at an interesting time when deforestation dropped in 2015 compared to 2014, it's good news, but the bad news is that this level is still very high, the second highest in the historical record."
The vast majority (of deforestation) is of small and medium scale, which is difficult to control.
According to Finer, controlling small- and medium-sized agriculture will be a challenge for the government. Some of the cases that have been detected are small- and medium-scale oil palm plantations in Huánuco, Ucayali, and Loreto; cacao crops east of Madre de Dios; and the fields of papaya, corn, and rice along the Interoceanic Highway, also in Madre de Dios.
"The vast majority (of deforestation) is of small and medium scale, which is difficult to control. It is the first time we understand that this is the pattern and I think it will take time to develop policies to tackle it. Usually it is easier to focus on large-scale deforestation because there is a company behind and we can focus on them," Finer continued. He added that this does not mean that large-scale agriculture should be overlooked. It should not be forgotten that, in 2013, according to reports, new large-scale oil palm plantations were detected, including those managed by the controversial Group Melka.
The technology that MAAP uses and that has allowed to detect in real time, in recent months, the progress of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, is part of a methodology that combines several tools. On one side is the assessment of GLAD Early Forest Loss Alerts (Landsat images taken with 30 meters resolution) and on the other side the analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery (Planet and Digital Globe), both sources of information have helped establish patterns, define the main drivers of deforestation, and look at the "hotspots" where deforestation is occurring.
To date, according to Synthesis #2 presented by MAAP, eight deforestation hotspots have been identified in the Peruvian Amazon. It is known, for example, that the areas of greatest intensity are concentrated in the central Amazon, in Huánuco and Ucayali, but there are also other important hotspots located in Madre de Dios and San Martín.
The map below shows how the causes of deforestation can change over the years. In the case of the central Amazon, where the highest intensity hotspots (A and B) are located, it can be seen (zone A on the map) that two large-scale oil palm projects were identified as main drivers of deforestation in the northwest of the Ucayali region between 2012 and 2014. This trend varied between 2015 and 2016, years in which the greatest intensity of deforestation ran westward, where cattle grazing and small-scale oil palm became the main threat.
In the case of the Huánuco region (zone B on the map), cattle ranching was the main cause of deforestation in both periods of time.
DEFORESTATION IN PROTECTED NATURAL AREAS
According to Finer, one of the main advantages of using technology to monitor deforestation lies in the possibility of controlling protected natural areas.
"When we detect illegal deforestation, gold mining within a protected area for example, we can report it to the authorities," he said. "They have the ability to act." He explained that it is the easiest way to detect and react to an illegal activity. "It is clear that deforestation is illegal and there is a government entity that knows that it is their responsibility to intervene. We have seen it in Amarakaeri and Tambopata."
In the first case, MAAP monitors the construction of a controversial road that would cross the buffer zone of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve and the Manu National Park. And in the second, in the Tambopata National Reserve, it follows the steps of the illegal miners and denounces its activities with the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP).
What to Do With the Information?
Both MAAP and the Ministry of the Environment's National Forest Conservation Program—which preserves the historical records of deforestation and receives and analyzes GLAD Alerts—generates relevant information every day, but the question is what to do with it?
According to Finer, the problem of forest loss remains latent, as well as the question of "what to do with the deforestation that is everywhere and in small patches?" He said that this question must be resolved by the Peruvian government and proposes to disseminate a message that warns violators that "with technology there are eyes watching … we can see. In five years this can make a big difference."
Rolando Vivanco, an official of the National Forest Conservation Program, argued that the information already exists and in large quantities; what is needed now is to train regional governments and especially the Special Attorney for Environmental Matters (FEMA) in the use of deforestation monitoring tools.
"Sernanp can only act legally within protected natural areas, Serfor can only act within its concessions or properties, but FEMA can act everywhere, the prosecution can enter any area. They are the ones who have to empower themselves with the tool," Vivanco said.
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.