Putting the Trees Back on the Map: How GIS is Helping Reforest South America

Devon Reeser


GIS tools have revolutionized tracking in the sometimes hazy field of reforestation in developing countries. Deforestation contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation sector. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) programs borne from the Kyoto Protocol have burst onto the international funding scene to pay forest-rich, poorer nations for forest ecosystem services, whether that means reforesting or not deforesting. Hundreds of other private businesses offset their carbon emissions by funding forest “carbon sinks” as well, as part of their corporate social responsibility charters, usually in partnership with NGOs.

Many, if not most, of the countries where reforestation is most viable have fuzzy systems of accountability, however, as well as gaps in technology know how and systems to implement tracking. Illegal logging often negates efforts. South America is home to more than a third of the world’s remaining rain forests and has possibly the most potential to reforest with a relatively low population and easily convertible land. But nearly all countries in South America score under 40 on a scale of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index – and hence it has been difficult to ensure trees will stay put.

New, simplified Web-based GIS systems and UN trainings as part of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program of the UN Convention on Climate Change are revolutionizing forest tracking in South America. Here are three innovative examples from South America of how GIS is being used to strengthen and control forest monitoring to put – and to keep – the trees back on the map.

Monitoring Reforestation in Paraguay

Paraguay has suffered the most from deforestation for monoculture agriculture of any of its Latin neighbors. Only 10% of primary forest cover is left, gone in only 60 years, mostly for soy and cattle production by foreign entities.[i] The NGO, A Todo Pulmon, Paraguay Respira (With All Its Lungs, Paraguay Is Breathing) is tackling reforestation head on and using GIS to monitor and measure. The goal of the project, begun in 2009 by a national radio personality, was to plant 14 million trees – 85% to restore the Bosque Atlántico del Alto Paraná (BAAPA, the Atlantic Rainforest) and 15% for urban areas and schools as an educational initiative to spread the importance of reforesting the Atlantic Rainforest. It has planted 40 million.[ii]

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The challenge now is to monitor to make sure they stay there. Paraguay is the most corrupt country in the Americas – it is the 27th most corrupt in the world on the Corruption Index, and has been in the top 10 in the new millennium. Though a “Zero Deforestation” law has been in existence for nearly a decade, officials often look the other way when illegal logging occurs. To date, the country has lacked the capacity to monitor and mitigate that corruption and crime. World Wildlife Federation is training every municipality in the forest districts to use GIS monitoring with satellite imagery from Brazil’s Space Research Institute.[iii] GIS satellite images are matched with the GPS coordinates of trees planted to track if reforested trees have been cut, and, if so, landowners pay heavy fines per national law and ramped up police monitoring spurred by enhanced media coverage and social consciousness.

Tracking Deforestation in Ecuador

With help from REDD, Ecuador is serving as a model country to input data into a simplified reforestation and deforestation Web-based GIS portal.[iv] A challenge for Ecuador in preserving the Amazon is a desire and need to develop petroleum resources within its most dense forest area. Not only does the portal easily show deforestation in protected areas and biodiversity corridors with petroleum and natural resource development, but it also shows overlap of reforested areas. The information helps policy makers and other investors immediately visualize effects of development and identify priority conservation areas. The web-based system does not require expensive software purchases and can hence be used across the nation by forest land managers and other specialists to keep one full, up to date resource publically available. The information was shared at a conference in Buenos Aires to replicate in Argentina.

Ecuador reforestation plots from Sistema Único de Información Ambiental.
Ecuador reforestation plots from Sistema Único de Información Ambiental.

Exposing Illegal Loggin Using GPS in Brazil

The ability of NGOs and the media to expose illegal activity is a new method of creating social accountability and transparency that supersedes corrupt policing and state-based systems. Greenpeace activists used covert GPS surveillance to track illegal logging in the Amazon. Activists placed GPS trackers on logging trucks to find their destinations, and then shockingly show with GIS satellite imagery illegal logging deep within protected forest. The Brazilian government is now being pressured to overturn a 2013 law weakening control.[v] The full report, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis: Night Terrors was published in October 2014 and is being read all over the world.

The prevalence and easy technology transfer of GPS and GIS has now made it possible to monitor and make sure that, even in the most unpoliced, corrupt areas of the world, trees meant to be on the map are put there and stay for good.


[i] Mongabay. 2014. Paraguay.

[ii] WWF Global. 2014. With All its Lungs, Paraguay is Breathing.

[iii] WWF. March 2011. Making a Pact to Tackle Deforestation in Paraguay (PDF).

[iv] UN REDD Programme. 2014. National Programmes in South America strengthen capacities on forest monitoring and web-based geographic information systems. REDD Programme Newsletter. September 2014.

[v] Carrington, Damian. 15 Oct. 2014. Activists Use GPS to Track Illegal Loggers in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. The Guardian.

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Devon Reeser