SEATTLE, Washington — Across the globe, communities are fighting for revitalized tree cover. Biodiversity loss and efforts to mitigate climate change are driving forces for this renewed interest in forests. Unfortunately, high costs in developing economies and poor political resolve in wealthy nations continue to frustrate reforestation efforts. Luckily, innovative start-ups in the U.S. are stepping up, using drone reforestation to radically reduce reforestation costs. These developments now allow private companies to play a forward role in forest revitalization and climate change mitigation.
The Benefits of Forests
Beyond the obvious benefits of increased forest cover, which include natural carbon capture and improved biodiversity, impoverished communities also benefit greatly. Increased tree cover, for example, leads to increased local water quality. Forests also help to slow or reverse desertification, a significant problem in the developing world, and improve soil health. Better soil health reduces the need for fertilizer, which in turn increases profit margins for farmers in the developing world.
New Drone Technology
Drones are unmanned aircraft wildly ranging in size and controlled by human operators on the ground. They are one of many new technologies that scientists and policymakers alike are actively using to mitigate climate change. Many of the innovative start-ups touting this technology hope to utilize their tech in developing nations across the world.
DroneSeed is an example of one such company. Based in Seattle, it developed drone reforestation technology capable of planting seeds six times faster than a human. This translates to 40 acres worth of seed propagation daily. DroneSeed advertises carbon capture as the primary benefit of its technology. The company believes that the use of carbon credits (a form of negative emissions utilized by industry to meet regulatory requirements) could further enhance the economic argument for investment in drone reforestation.
Other companies, like the Canadian firm Flash Forest, advertise the benefits of drone reforestation for the recovery of forests damaged by wildfires. These imaginative start-ups are managing to merge conservation with technological developments to mitigate climate change and provide habitats for wildlife. The International Panel on Climate Change estimates that over the next three decades, the world needs to plant about one billion hectares of forest in order to keep global warming in check. With the minds working at DroneSeed, Flash Forest and a host of other start-ups, perhaps this goal can be met.
The nation of Madagascar, home to more than 25 million people and located off of the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, has lost more than 40% of its tree cover since 1960. The island has a unique geographic history, separating from the main continent of Africa more than 88 million years ago. As such, many of its species are endemic to the island. Madagascar has such stark biodiversity that it is home to nearly 3% of all animal and plant species in the world, including the lemur and the baobab tree.
Deforestation causes immense harm to the Malagasy people as well. It disrupts local rainfall patterns, destroys water tables and expedites the loss of topsoil. These factors can cause poor agricultural yields, leading to food and water insecurity and ultimately further deforestation. Fortunately, the government of Madagascar has recognized the issue and is engaged in a reforestation campaign to plant four million hectares of trees across the island, in part using drone technology.
Thailand, one of the economic powerhouses of Southeast Asia, is home to more than 68 million people. It is also employing drone technology to meet its emissions targets and reforest its lands. Since 1961, forest cover in Thailand has declined from 53.5% to 31.6%, with significant portions of the deforestation occurring in wildlife hotspots located within Thailand’s rainforests. Much of the country’s deforestation has been to accommodate not only industry but rapid population growth. In 2014, due to a renewed dedication to reforestation, the Thai government swiftly and randomly evicted thousands of people to conduct reforestation efforts. While reforestation is a necessary endeavor, the rights of many Thai were violated in the name of environmental protection.
However, recent political developments in Thailand point to a renewed interest in bridging the gap between reforestation and population growth. Through “community forestry,” thousands of communities now manage the forests around their homes in line with conservation measures. On top of that, Thailand has established rapid reforestation campaigns through the use of drones. Sustainable, cooperative reforestation will help Thailand meet its emissions targets and grow its economy through eco-tourism, restoring the nation’s biodiversity and improving human rights for its minority communities.
Forest decline is a complex issue. Political, social and economic developments, however, can prevent massive declines in the rate of deforestation. New developments in technology, particularly the new possibility of rapid reforestation with inexpensive drone technology, offer the tantalizing possibility of restoring forests across the world. Rather than violating human rights to get there, drone reforestation can plant trees while ensuring impoverished communities receive the benefits of climate stability and water and food security.
– Saarthak Madan