Terra-i: No stranger to controversy

Nathan Russell

Two things tend to happen when people get their hands on a new tool that is fundamentally helpful. First, they discover more uses for it than anyone could have imagined. And second, the more numerous and diverse the uses, the more likely it is that the tool will eventually become associated with conflict and controversy.

Source: science magazine 2014 - McSweeney

A recent application of Terra-I – a decidedly helpful tool for detecting changes in land cover, based on near real-time remote sensing – illustrates both tendencies with unusual clarity. Using data from Terra-i, a group of scientists from several US universities have demonstrated the complex ties between illegal drug trafficking and accelerated deforestation in Honduras, according to an article appearing in the latest issue of the journal Science.

Many previous reports have documented environmental damage caused by the clearing of forest for coca production in South America. But this new study focuses on other links in the drug value chain – revealing how clandestine transportation and money laundering also drive deforestation.

Initially, the raw data downloaded from Terra-i underestimated the extent of the damage. Once the scientists realized this, they contacted the Terra-i team, requesting that the raw data be calibrated to their study area. The CIAT researchers, who “did not know the end use of this data calibration,” the article notes, completed the task in a few months. The adjusted results are those presented in Science – showing “detected deforestation, 2004-2012, in the eastern Honduras narco-trafficking corridor.”

Without the “Terra-I data, we wouldn't have been able to publish these findings so soon,” said Ophelia Wang, a professor in Northern Arizona University’s School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability. “Also, the Terra-i team was really responsive in helping us with the calibration. This demonstrates how scientists with complementary backgrounds can collaborate to produce important studies that raise public awareness of environmental issues.”

The researchers plan to use Terra-i data for further studies on the links between drug trafficking and deforestation across all of Central America. They also see scope for such work in Peru, were illegal drugs are transported on small planes into Brazil and Bolivia.

Environmental issues, including deforestation, are almost always controversial and often involve conflict. The new findings on “narco-deforestation” reveal a particularly garish thread in the broader pattern of ecological destruction in Latin America.

Against this background, the Terra-i team is constantly on the lookout for new users and applications. So far, they have attracted 1,000 registered users, and in just the last year, 260 organizations from 45 countries have reported using the tool. A recent web conference on Terra-i attracted about 450 people from 27 countries.

“What they all have in common,” said Louis Reymondin, the CIAT researcher who leads the Terra-i team “is a conviction that halting deforestation requires far-reaching changes – certainly in conservation policy but evidently in other policy realms as well, including drug policy. Terra-i users further believe that reliable information tools and friendly assistance in their application are essential for guiding and promoting such changes.”

The image below shows Terra-i results for deforestation in eastern Honduras. www.terra-i.org


Blog post by Nathan Russell, Head of Corporate Communications at CIAT.

Important articles News category