New Technologies to Protect Latin America’s Biodiversity

Predicting floods, protecting wildlife and saving lives and forests

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Teeming with a variety of plants, animals and forms of life, Latin America is a biodiversity powerhouse.

Around 60% of global terrestrial life, and diverse freshwater and marine species can be found within the region. While the Amazon is the most obvious hotspot, the rest of Latin America is also packed with life in all its countries.

Sadly, there have been rapid declines in species abundance and rates of extinction continue to rise. This can be linked to habitat loss, agricultural expansion and intensification, and a high dependency on natural resources. Worldwide Fund For Nature (WWF) estimates Latin America has lost 94% of its species since the 1970s, one of the most severe rates in the world.

Faced with this alarming scenario, Latin America is now looking for conservation, adaptation and mitigation solutions of all kinds. Communities across the region are using technological advances to adapt to climate change, improve waste management in cities, monitor invasive species and even control illegal mining.

The potential of drones

Astrophysicist Bruno Sánchez-Andrade created a drone that constantly captures photos at a certain height, monitoring the paths of poachers.

Color changes in images taken at different times enable Sánchez-Andrade to create a 3D model of the land. This allows changes in the density of vegetation and invasive species to be detected. The drones were first used in Ecuador, where they spotted the yellow gayomba – an ornamental but invasive plant native to southern and western Europe – in protected biospheres in Ecuador. The flower can alter the structure and abundance of native species, preventing their regeneration and impacting water cycles.

Sánchez-Andrade and his team also visited Argentina to demonstrate the potential of drones in forest management. This activity was implemented in the framework of the partnership with the Native Forests and Community Project, which seeks to promote the sustainable use of forests in northern Argentina.

“Drones can be an option to improve management and protection in forested areas, by offering high-resolution images in a faster and cheaper way than traditional tools such as airplanes and satellites,” explained Sánchez-Andrade. “We want to take advantage of their potential in different projects across the region.”

Satellite maps and deforestation

Carlos Mazabanda, part of the team at Amazon Watch, an environmental NGO in Ecuador, was worried over the impacts of the Mirador copper mine, a large-scale open-pit mining operation located in the Zamora-Chinchipe province. However, analyzing this remote Amazonian region of Ecuador is complex.

That’s why Amazon Watch partnered up with DigitalGlobe, Planet, and Amazon Conservation Team and created an online tool called MAAP, which uses satellite imagery, GIS data, and remote sensing analysis. The map showed that the Mirador copper mine had led to the destruction of 9,928 hectares of native forests.

The satellite images helped to make the problem of deforestation visible in Ecuador, since seeing the disappearance of the forest through maps generated significant public outrage. The images went viral and the media attention of the case and social pressure managed to ban the exploitation in some areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

“MAAP seeks to improve understanding of current patterns and causes of deforestation through the use of high-resolution satellite images and deforestation data in near real-time by presenting this information in accessible reports,” said Mazabanda, who has been warning over the impacts of minings for decades.

Geospatial data and climate change

Based in Chile, Jaime Varas witnessed how a massive flood in 2015 in the municipality of Chañaral destroyed over 200 homes and took 80 lives. He argued that a large part of the consequences could have been prevented just by anticipating the flood, but the municipality didn’t have the proper tools in place.

He decided to take action, developing a mobile phone application that uses geospatial data to inform users about flood-prone areas, evacuation routes and meeting points. It even allows missing people to upload their location. The app, called Thaki, uses data provided by the Chilean government and is free of licenses.

“Thaki is a geospatial tool that integrates information on natural disasters, territory and planning for education in adaptation to climate change and natural disasters,” Varas said. “Exploring the territory, paths, and safe zones with anticipation is a priority for resilient cities. This allows the citizens to be ready for a natural disaster.”

Bioacoustics and protected areas

Audiomoth is easy-to-use and affordable bioacoustic recording equipment. Bioacoustics is often used to monitor protected areas around the world. It detects sounds and analyzes them through algorithms in specially designed computer programs to determine which species are present in an area.

However, the price of a device ranges from $200 to $700, and several are required to obtain a more complete record. For this reason, researchers from the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, created Audiomoth, which uses cheaper parts and costs between $23 and $46. The device can capture not only the presence of species, but the sound of gunshots and electric saws, which are indicators of illegal logging and poaching, two activities that are quite common in the native forests of Latin America.

The device is currently being used in indigenous communities in the north of the Yucatan peninsula where the big cats of the Black Forest have already been identified and monitored. Audiomoth has also been used in the Tapir Mountain Reserve Research in Belize, where there are also few resources to combat illegal hunting and logging.

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