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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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