RIO DE JANEIRO – Everyone knows satellites are pretty cool. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines them in this context as: a) a celestial body orbiting another of larger size b) a manufactured object or vehicle intended to orbit the earth, the moon, or another celestial body.

Stone Korshak, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The Rio Times.

If you’ve watched any movies lately you know it’s how we track the bad guys for remote vaporization, or how bad guys do bad things like freeze the earth’s core or shoot lasers into James Bond’s cars. But now we’re also seeing it used to track the level of deforestation in Brazil’s tropical rain-forest, which I think is amazing.

The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Since then, thousands of satellites have been launched into orbit around the Earth. These originate from more than fifty countries and have used the satellite launching capabilities of ten nations. A few hundred satellites are currently operational, whereas thousands of unused satellites and satellite fragments orbit the Earth as space debris, according to Wikipedia.

Tropical forests of many varieties straddle the equator on the earth’s land surfaces, hosting forests of amazing diversity and productivity. They are however disappearing rapidly as “civilization” makes room for farms and pastures, to harvest timber for construction and fuel, and to build roads and urban areas.

It is undeniable that deforestation is solving current human needs, but it also has massive, and often devastating, consequences, including; social conflict, extinction of plants and animals, and climate change. These are issues that aren’t just local, but global. Although tropical forests cover only about seven percent of the Earth’s dry land, they probably harbor about half of all species on Earth.

Children at a slash and burn site, photo courtesy U. S. Forest Service.

Tropical forests are also home to millions of native (indigenous) people who make their livings through subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering, or through low-impact harvesting of forest products like rubber or nuts. Deforestation in indigenous territories by loggers, colonizers, and refugees has sometimes triggered violent conflict.

National governments, like Brazil, and aid agencies struggle with questions about what level of human presence, if any, is compatible with conservation goals in tropical forests, how to balance the needs of indigenous peoples with national economic development.

Satellite deforestation image, courtesy Doug Morton, University of Maryland Department of Geography.

One development is, for decades, the Brazilian government has been basing estimates of Amazon deforestation on high-resolution Landsat satellite data. Having satellite data helps in mapping the total deforested area, because some of the deforestation in the region comes from small-scale clearing or logging projects not easily monitored on the ground.

The paradox is that while more information is available, there seems to be multiple ways of interpreting the data, and there is still plenty of room for human error. The evaluation of what is acceptable deforestation still lies in the hands of our elected officials and global economic forces.


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