An App to Combat Illegal Logging

September 16, 2015

TIMBY (‘This Is My Backyard’) is a new smartphone app that 2006 Goldman Prize winner Silas Siakor is using to monitor illegal logging in his home country of Liberia. His work to train local communities to use the app is just one of the exciting projects the Goldman Prize has supported as part of our recently launched Pilot Grantmaking Program for former Prize winners. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has joined forces with the Prize to provide additional support to Siakor and scale up monitoring activities in other parts of Liberia. 

Liberia has a deforestation problem, largely driven by industrial plantation development. Since 2011, several industries have been clearing Liberia’s precious forests to make way for industries ranging from rubber plantations to destructive palm oil companies.

The situation is getting worse and companies are expanding their plantations, posing a grave threat to Liberia’s precious natural resources. Habitat loss threatens already endangered wildlife and drives animals into areas where people live and farm. Deforestation also threatens the livelihood of forest-dwelling communities who rely on access to forest resources for food, medicine and income. Most importantly, deforestation emits huge amounts of carbon stored in the trees and surrounding peat, while taking out the very mechanisms that help remove carbon from the planet: trees. On a global scale, deforestation accounts for as much as 17 percent of global carbon pollution — roughly 50 percent more than the entire world’s air, road, rail, and shipping traffic combined.

A forester gets hand on training in forest monitoring. Photo by Silas Siakor.

Not Just a Tree Problem

Illegal logging doesn’t just affect the environment. Land owners in Liberia are being targeted and coerced into leasing their land to corporations. In exchange for false promises of job opportunities and services such as schools and clinics, they receive money worth far less than the value of their land. It affects people living far away from the forests as well: illegal logging deprives developing countries of up to $15 billion in tax revenue annually.

Despite recent gains in efforts to strengthen its forest law enforcement, such as signing the Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU, Liberia’s implementation is poor and both individuals and industry continue to vie for the country’s precious resources. Illegal logging is extremely difficult to monitor and perpetrators are rarely convicted for criminal activities against the forest, further demonstrating a need to strengthen civil society monitoring.

An App for the Forests

How is it possible, then, to combat illegal logging in a country with little forest law enforcement while empowering the people to challenge powerful industry vying for their resources?

Enter: TIMBY

TIMBY (‘This Is My Back Yard’) is an innovative smartphone application that helps citizens monitor and report illegal logging and destructive oil palm plantation expansion in Liberia. The aim of the app is to deliver actionable reports of illegal or destructive forestry activities, triggering action from government and policymakers to address the reported issues. Users can report illegal logging by uploading images, video or audio to the app. Real-time reporting means users can prevent illegal logging before the first tree is felled.

Silas Siakor, 2006 Goldman Prize winner and founding director of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in Liberia, is working to ensure that local communities make the best use of the technology. He organized two regional training workshops for community monitors in Sinoe County, where significant forest cover brings high risks of illegal logging and plantation development. By training community monitors first, he is building the app’s implementation towards a vision where the monitoring and reporting is truly crowdsourced, empowering every citizen in Liberia to protect its forests.

In a country with poor internet connectivity like Liberia, Siakor’s team established a system for manually collecting data from areas without internet connection. It remains the most effective way to monitor and relay information on threats to forests in remote parts of the country.

Timby

TIMBY Shows Early Success

Siakor’s work to train community monitors in Liberia to use the app is already achieving results. During the first TIMBY training workshop, local activists noticed that while a logging company had been granted a permit to start logging in Sinoe County, a senior government official had issued the permit without due process, in violation of the law. The team reported the violation, and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) revoked the permit before the company could start cutting down any trees.

“It isn’t an exaggeration to say that without TIMBY we couldn’t have done the good work we have done.” – Siakor

Silas conducts an inventory of abandoned logs in Orien. Photo by Silas Siakor.

The Way Forward

SDI’s actions were behind the cancellation of all the illegal permits issued to logging companies between 2010 and 2012, protecting more than 2 million hectares of forests in Liberia. Siakor and his SDI colleagues are now campaigning against a government plan that would allow timber from agricultural concessions to be exported as a legal, sustainably produced product, thus accelerating the rate of deforestation.

Technology such as satellite imaging has paved the way for sustainable forestry management, and has even allowed us to accurately count the trees covering our earth. Siakor’s work with TIMBY is proving how tech, even in some of the most remote places in the world, can help disrupt illegal logging by providing the evidence needed for government to take action.

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