Using Remote Sensing to Understand the Correlation Between Deforestation and Forest Fires

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The Madre de Dios region in southeastern Peru has been the spotlight of recent work by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). In the Tambopata National Reserve, deforestation has recently accelerated as authorities struggle to put a stop to illegal gold mining. The total deforested area from mining is has reached 450 hectares, and 100 of those hectares have been lost between July and September. These activities threaten both wildlife and human settlements through various consequences. Also, fires have contributed to deforestation in the region during a particularly dry season. This area is important to conservation as a case study in balancing multiple interests, protecting biodiversity, and promoting ecotourism. For these reasons, deforestation in Tambopata and the rest of the Madre de Dios region is concerning and ought to be controlled.

Rich Biodiversity in Tampbopata, Peru

Tambopata is known for its incredibly rich biodiversity. The rain forest is home to thousands of people, over 10,000 plant species, more than a thousand butterfly species, hundreds of different birds, and more. Through deforestation, habitats are lost for wildlife and livelihoods may be challenged for the people living in the area. Furthermore, other ecosystem services like carbon sequestration are undermined. But the illegal mining that occurs following deforestation has other harmful effects that are not new to Peru. Gold mining causes mercury runoff to pollute the waterways and threaten public health, for instance.

Deforestation within Tambopata National Reserve between July (left panel) and September (right panel) 2016. Red circles highlight areas of major deforestation. Source: MAAP.

Deforestation within Tambopata National Reserve between July (left panel) and September (right panel) 2016. Red circles highlight areas of major deforestation. Source: MAAP.

MAAP has used remote sensing to discover a correlation between deforestation and forest fires in this area. They found that 600 hectares of forest have been degraded or completely lost to fires in 2016. Between July and September – the same timespan as the gold mining in their other report – they have captured photos of forest loss in areas where they had “detect[ed] heat sources and highlight[ed] areas where the temperature is significantly above normal” (Images 47b-f). More forest cover has been affected directly by fire than by gold mining, although those estimates do not consider degradation that occurs downstream from mining or other indirect results.

MAAP uses GIS and remote sensing in their work to protect the Amazon. By tracking the activities in the forests and using all available tools, conservation work becomes more powerful. The problem runs deeper though, if other opportunities to make a living cannot compete with gold mining work and the causes of the Peruvian drought are not understood. It should not be dealt with by merely shutting down the mines and extinguishing the fires, then guarding against them. The underlying problems must be addressed, and the desires of all parties involved considered. For more of MAAP’s work with geospatial technologies, you can visit the organization’s methodologies page.

MAAP Methodology for using remote sensing and GIS to study deforestation in Peru.

MAAP Methodology for using remote sensing and GIS to study deforestation in Peru.

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