How drones are helping save forests in Borneo

On the island of Borneo, researchers are helping local communities keep watch on their forest using drones. Photo by our Observer.
On the island of Borneo, researchers are helping local communities keep watch on their forest using drones. Photo by our Observer.

The southeast Asian island of Borneo is a paradise of biodiversity. Indeed, the rainforests that cover much of the island are as rich in life forms as the Amazon. However, in past years, the forest has suffered at the hands of companies that have come to extract the island’s minerals, timber and palm oil. According to a recent study, 30% of Borneo’s rainforests have disappeared since 1973. Now, several local residents have turned to drones in an effort to save what is left of the forest.

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, is shared between three different countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the tiny nation of Brunei. The largest loss of forest has occurred in the Indonesian part of Borneo. This state, called the Kalimantan, lost 123,941 km² of forest between 1973 and 2010.

Many Kalimantan residents are worried about losing these forests forever. That’s why some of them have banded together to monitor the environmental damage caused by the large companies that exploit the island’s natural resources.

Several activists joined forces with researchers at the Swandiri Institute, a local organisation dedicated to protecting the environment, to create a unique monitoring system. They build drones, which are then used to take aerial photos of the forest. They then use these photos to map the changes to the forests.

These aerial images of Borneo’s forests were taken by drones. Our Observers sent us this footage.

“Each local community participates in a monitoring project”

Irendra Radjawali, 41, is a researcher who lives in Borneo. He is one of the project’s founders.

I’m from Borneo but I did a doctorate in Germany. That’s where I started getting interested in environmental politics. For years, the massive deforestation of the island has been happening in silence. It’s gotten very little media coverage. There have been a lot of conflicts between local communities and the big companies operating here over their land grabbing, but it is hard to prove and, more often than not, authorities close their eyes to the problem.

This workshop is where drones are built. Photos by Arif Munandar, a researcher at the Swandiri Institute.

"I learned how to make a drone on YouTube"

In 2013, when I came back to the island, I wanted to help local communities fight to save the forest. I looked for maps of the area but I couldn’t find any! I tried to work using satellite photos, but they were poor quality – it was hard to tell where concessions ended. It was too expensive to consider hiring an airplane to photograph the forest. I had several friends in Germany who suggested I consider drones. But in Borneo, a drone that has auto-pilot, GPS, and camera functions would cost more than a thousand euros. So I checked YouTube and I learned how to make a drone myself from watching tutorials.

We salvage some pieces and we import others. We buy the cameras that we install on our drones online. Each of our drones costs about 500 euros to make.

“We can see if companies are exploiting land outside of their concessions”

At first, there were about a dozen of us activists working on this project. We went to talk to local communities and asked them if they had come into conflict with the big companies. Their answer was often yes. Then, we designated the zones that we wanted to monitor and we started setting up workshops so that locals could learn both how to make their own drones and how to analyze the information that the drones collect.

Now, each local community runs a monitoring project that is both participative and transparent.

Check out the interactive map built by the activists in Borneo by clicking here.

Today, there are about a hundred drones on the island that fly over the zone and take photos and videos daily. The quality is good and allows us to understand what is going on in the forest. Then, we put together the photos to make maps.

I found out which companies operate in the forest as well as the perimeter of their individual concessions. Now, we can monitor to make sure that they don’t start operating outside of their designated zones.

“It was the first time that drone images were used in an Indonesian court”

If that’s the case, the evidence is then sent to the government, which can then follow up. In 2014, we proved that a mining company was exploiting the forest in areas outside its allotted zone. The company lost its permit. That was the first time that drone images were used in an Indonesian court.

In total, more than a hundred drones are being used by island residents. Photo by Arif Munandar, a researcher at Swandiri Institute.

At the beginning, I invested my own money in this project. Now, we have the support of several international NGOs, including PWYP and Samdhana, which bring in about 15,000 euros a year.

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