Cell Phones Used on the Frontline of Forest Conservation 

By: Leydn McAvoy; Milton Academy

          Overhead a brooding sky opens up, where massive trunks once soared a hundred feet into the forest canopy. These trees that first sprouted from the jungle floor centuries are gone within minutes, reaching international markets by the time a ranger takes to discover it’s gone. The fate of the tracts of the Borneo rainforest tells the tale of the destruction of this rainforest, but highlights a possible path toward protecting the last stands of Borneo’s trees. 

          Since the most coveted trees are nearly all restricted to national parks, Native lands, and territorial reserves, illegal loggers threaten these protected lands every day. Because protected forests stretch for miles and its remote river valleys, the expansive forests make it nearly impossible to patrol around the edge of the protected lands and keep intruders out. The absence of authority on the ground has lead to a sense of helplessness among park rangers and indigenous communities. Illicit practices of logging account for 190 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (“Illegal Logging Has Become More Violent Than Ever.” National Geographic). 

          Despite a series of reforms to their security, many protected land groups still struggle to implement a lasting plan of action. Groups in Borneo say they are experimenting with differing security measures for forests such as an satellite imaging technology and remote sensing techniques that help measure and observe changes in forest health and cover (“Forest Monitoring.” Global Forest Atlas). Dwiati Novita Rini, a rainforest rehabilitation worker in Sumatra explains to New Scientist that currently “we can find out how much forest has been cut using satellite images, but we find out after, so we cannot trace when it happens”, showing the phones’ potential to enable real-time action (“Old Smartphones Called Into Save Indonesian Forests). 

          Changes have been slow to take effect and have brought little relief for many remote communities. The illegal logging epidemic has prompted Topher White, a physicist and engineer from Silicon Valley, to create a solution in which he uses recycled cell phones to listen to the sound of chainsaws, sending an alert with a location to authorities. His journey began in 2011 when he volunteered at a gibbon reserve in Indonesian Borneo to help dwindling gibbons. While working on the reserve, White noticed that the reserve not only worked to protect gibbons but to defend their sanctuary against illegal loggers. A few hundred meters from the sanctuary, he discovered a crew of illegal loggers cutting down trees, yet the rangers couldn’t detect the chainsaw and other sounds related to that activity because of the sounds of nature. 

          White wanted to provide relief for many of the villagers and reserves, who are victims of loggers that have snatched their forest for years. In 2012, he founded Rainforest Connection to repurpose old Android smartphones into autonomous, solar powered devices that continuously record and screen ambient sounds in the rainforest using the phones’ microphones and onboard software. Any suspicious noises that match the sound-signature of a chainsaw alerts authorities through existing cell phone networks, providing rangers with information to interdict and stop the illegal activity (“Your Old Cell Phone Can Help Save the Rainforest.” National Geographic). The core setup for the device is fairly simple: attach a phone high in a tree to get reception, add another phone in another tree a certain distance away, and continue to process until the network of cell phones covers the area. White says that cell reception often isn’t bad in the forest because many developing nations have embraced mobile phone technology rather than traditional landlines. He uses the coverage to connect rangers at all times with the cell phones phones. Each phone covers a circular area of about a third of a square mile, allowing rangers to detect the location of loggers with multiple devices. 

          The phones are powered using solar energy; however, harnessing power forced White to reconsider his designs since he hadn’t considered the diminished sunlight from the tree canopy. He decided to design the panels in the shape of seven petals “to maximize the amount of power that comes out of the rays of light and sunflecks that are able to make it through the canopy,” explains White (“How Solar-Powered Recycled Smartphones Could Save the Rainforest.” Smithsonian). 

          White’s system is operating in protected forests in Asia and Africa, while in Brazil, indigenous Tembé people are using the system in forest conservation efforts to reduce “illegal logging, land invasion, and other crimes against their sprawling territory.” The monitoring system is supported by law enforcement and local tribes working to preserve rainforests. As the project moves forward, White hopes to expand his device so that the phones can detect things like vehicle use in off-peak hours and sounds of poachers. However, such progress has allowed many groups to respond to areas of deforestation and prevent the illegal loggers from returning. The question for illegal loggers now in Borneo Indonesia is: “Can you hear us now?”