Terra-i: Eyes on the Ground
By: Adeyemi Ademiluyi
Terra-i is a tool that monitors land use change. The data outputs of the tool are then entered into an interactive website that allows the user to investigate and monitor the land-use change occurring all over Latin America and the Caribbean with the hope of extending to cover all of the tropics. It is free to use and open to everyone at www.terra-i.org. In September 2013 the Terra-i team, in collaboration with Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana (IIAP), and Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through Trade-off Scenarios (ASSETS) project went into the Peruvian Amazon with the aim of investigating the validity of the 2011-2012 data output. Validation is achieved through comparison of information given by this state of the art, near real time, land use change monitoring system with the landscape on the ground. This is the first time since the development of the tool 5 years ago, and the launch of the web site over a year ago that an Amazon based field validation has been conducted.
Starting at Pucallpa, the capital of the Ucayali region of Peru, the team spent 4 days traveling along the Ucayali river by boat and 7 days by car stopping at several sample points along the way, as well as doing an hour long flight covering 100 nautical miles. The trip left researchers Alejandro Coca and John Tello with mixed feelings. The wonderful mix of landscapes, sunrises and sunsets, beautifully starry sky, silent nights, great food, and welcoming people sat in stark contrast to some of the startling facts.
Once there the team found some startling differences between the land use changes that were occurring along the side of the river, and along the side of the quickly growing road that is beginning to have its own system of tributaries leading from it deeper into the forest. They found that along the river they were finding more subsistence farming plots. They found evidence of slash-and-burn farming methods and very little community owned livestock. Villages tended to be smaller and single farms were no bigger than 6 ha. There were however large-scale logging camps along the Ucayali River. One of the logging companies they spoke to told the researchers that they clear 2 areas of 150 ha each every year.
Once the team started moving along the roads the size of cleared lands increased from 6 ha to 10 ha and above. There was more evidence of slash-and-burn methods including the burnt remains of wildlife. The largest farm they saw was 500 ha of oil palm with plans to extend another 130 ha this year. The accessibility given by road access meant that the communities were far larger; there was also evidence of large scale livestock grazing. 46300 ha of forest cover disappeared in the Ucayali region between 2011 and 2012. This number corresponds to about 74627 international football pitches.
The government of Peru as well as NGOs operating in the area are promoting oil palm and cocoa as alternative cash crops to try and push out the illicit crops such as coca. The Peruvian government is also putting a lot of effort into investing in decision support systems that monitor the high pressures on the natural resources from activities such as energy crops production, and mining. There are two official institutions generating annual reports but as of yet they lack the real time feedback that Terra-i provides. The Terra-i team believes that this tool could provide the early warnings that could allow the Peruvian government to take preventative steps rather than only being able to react after the fact.
While what some of the team saw was disturbing to them, overall they also see hope for the future. The information from the Terra-i tool proved to be very accurate, and the trip to the field yielded data to allow them to make additional calibrations and thus improve the accuracy of the tool even further. They believe with continued efforts on the part of the Peruvian government and tools such as Terra-i more steps can be taken to protect this rapidly disappearing forest.
The Terra-i team is sending out an invitation to the scientific community, policy makers, and all interested parties to use the tool to watch our forests and be aware of what we are allowing to happen to the lungs of the world.
The team also wishes to thank the International Center of Potato (CIP), World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP6) for their help, providing valuable inputs to this work.