Satellites Aid Sustainable Land Use in Amazon

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 31, 2001
Computers and satellites are being successfully harnessed to the problem
of biodiversity conservation in the Amazon rain forest.

Scientists believe that at least half of the world's animal, plant, and
insect species reside in the rain forest, an area half the size of the
continental United States.

Yet more than 50 million acres (20 million hectares) of the rain forest disappear each year due to uncontrolled logging, slash and burn agriculture, cattle ranching, mining, and oil exploration, according to the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER).

ACEER scientists have developed a geographic information system (GIS) that provides land-use planners with information that can be used to promote sustainable development of the rain forest. A project in the Peruvian Amazon demonstrates the success of the approach.

GIS technology couples data gathered on the ground by researchers with satellite data. The information from the two sources is combined in a computer program that enables researchers to look at both the big picture and the minute details of rain forest health and activity.

"The thing about GIS is it provides the capability to look at large spatial scales in a lot of detail," said Roger Mustalish, president of the ACEER board of directors and a professor of public health at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Using the GIS program, ACEER scientists can pinpoint what species are likely to be found in what types of habitat within the rain forest

Changing Land Use Practices

"[Conservation] is all a land use issue," said Joe Bishop, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania, and a GIS specialist for ACEER. "Are there ways we can help with tools and data sets to help the people [in the Peruvian Amazon] be better equipped for planning purposes?"

Thanks to GIS technology, the answer is yes.

The first system Bishop helped develop for ACEER focuses on the rain forest in and around the town of Iquitos, a region of the Peruvian Amazon long exploited by logging concessions but becoming an increasingly popular destination for ecotourists.

"They had a few plants that grew like weeds that had market value," said Bishop. "We helped them come up with ways to help market them, rather than tear down forests."

Camu Camu is a medicinal plant from the rain forest that is rich in vitamin C. GIS technology allowed the scientists to input data describing the habitat best suited to the plant—everything from the type of soil in which it grows to the other plant and animal species in the area—to a computer program that combined the data with geographic information.

The result is a map showing where Camu Camu is most likely to be found in the rain forest surrounding Iquitos. Land-use planners have used the information to change an economy based on unsustainable logging to one based on ecotourism and the sustainable harvest of Camu Camu, a renewable resource.

Today, Camu Camu is successfully exported to sports beverage companies in the United States, said Mustalish.

Looking to the Future

Similar GIS conservation success stories are becoming more common in the Peruvian Amazon, but ACEER cautions that the region is far from protected.

"In part of the Amazon basin, the rate of deforestation is the same [as it was a decade ago] or even accelerating," said Mustalish.

"At the same time," he added, "what I've seen starting to emerge is development in the form of tourism as opposed to going in and clear-cutting or doing oil and gas exploration."

The National Geographic Society recently awarded ACEER a $300,000 grant to expand its research facilities and GIS applications to southern portions of Peru. The project will focus in part on developing a sustainable economy in the region of Manu National Park, a World Heritage Site established in 1987 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

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