Witness Latin America's Deforestation As It Happens

Deforestation in the Amazon
Deforestation in the Amazon
Caroline Depecker

Since June, it is possible to witness the extent of deforestation, in quasi-real time, with just a few clicks. This is thanks to Terra-i, the first satellite deforestation detection and surveillance tool in Latin America.

Presented at the Rio +20 conference, Terra-i is based on calculation algorithms bio-inspired and developed at the Vaud School of Business and Engineering in Switzerland. A similar program already exists in Brazil, but this new computer tool will enable smaller countries to easily track the evolution of their forests.

Expanding livestock farming and agriculture, increasing urbanization, illegal trafficking… The deforestation in South America, despite a slight decrease in certain countries, has endured in the past 20 years. Monitoring it is of crucial importance for whoever wishes to evaluate and anticipate its already perceptible impacts on biodiversity, on nature's ecological benefits and on the climate.

Brazil has been doing so since 2008 on its whole territory thanks to a satellite detection system called Deter. Like Deter, Terra-i is based on the use of images taken by Modis sensors on NASA satellites, but is more performing: it enables the analysis of the terrain with a resolution of 250 square meters on the ground every 16 days over all of South America.

Complex algorithms

Developed in part by computer scientists at the Vaud School of Business and Engineering, the algorithms used by Terra-i approximate how much of a region is covered by plants depending on the seasonal trends and the precipitation data.

"This computer system uses nerve cells that are capable of learning from their errors by themselves," says Professor Andres Perez-Uribe. "Starting from data collected between 2000 and 2004, we trained them to recognize changes in natural vegetation which are linked to the season, and to distinguish atypical and sudden modifications that we attribute to human deforestation." The models had to be adjusted to take cloud cover or obstacles like rivers into account.

Once collected, the satellite information is processed by servers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia - one of the partner organizations, like the King's College in London - and finally appears as maps that are available online for free via Google maps.

That is the point. "In the three weeks that followed the launch of this new tool at the end of June, we had nearly 5,000 connections on the Terra-i website," says Louis Reymondin, who brought the project to CIAT. "10 percent of them were downloads of calculation data by people from the academic world such as researchers, doctors or students."

But this service is dedicated to practical uses more than anything else, says the computer scientist. "Terra-i can be very useful to analyze impacts on the environment, and to see how deforestation influences water flow and the availability of drinking water, or to determine the efficiency of some conservation policies."

Real-time monitoring

The CIAT researchers found "remarkable" results when they tested their tool. They showed that in the Caqueta region in Colombia, deforestation went from approximately 4,880 hectares in 2004 to 21,440 hectares in 2011, which represents a 340 percent hike. Gran Chaco in Paraguay is the second largest forest area in South America, and Terra-i determined that over a million hectares had been cut down between 2004 and 2010.

"But what is really interesting is how our data is "quickly" refreshed every 16 days," says Louis Reymondin. "We can almost follow certain deforestation processes - like when a road is built - in real-time.

Another advantage is the reactivity we then have: we can warn authorities very quickly when we see that an illegal deforestation is taking place in a natural park or a protected area, like the Chiribiquete National Park in the Colombian Amazon, which is closely monitored by Terra-i. Between 2010 and 2011, the deforestation rate in the buffer zones of this park has nearly doubled.

Now that the surveillance of Latin America is on track, Terra-i's developers are seeing big and are thinking of extending their system to all tropical forests, including in Asia and Africa. Excluding the obvious financial constraints, other difficulties are expected.

The computer scientists will have to adapt their algorithms to take into account the importance of Asian monsoons, of African droughts or of fragmented deforestations, which, contrary to the Amazon, are perpetrated by small farmers in very dispersed areas.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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