Can maps stop a bulldozer?

How MapHubs helped stop a palm oil company clearing a Manhattan-sized chunk of rainforest in Papua, Indonesia.

Bulldozing the rainforest

In 1997, I was desperate to go to Papua. The island was still smothered in a tangle of dense rainforest punctured by giant mountains crowned with equatorial glaciers. Navigating its poorly charted rivers would've taken weeks but offered the chance to encounter tribes hermetically sealed from modernity by miles of swamp forest and ravenous malarial mosquitoes.

Me in Kalimantan in 1997

For my nineteen year old self, it was adventure personified, but my volunteer teacher salary couldn't cover the expedition costs. Instead, I plumped for the relatively more accessible Kalimantan and a trek over the highest peaks of Sulawesi.

Twenty some years on, I now survey Papua's forests not from the bow of a dugout but through satellite scenes shot through between breaks in the clouds. These images reveal Papua's once great wilderness being strafed, burned, and then cleared by emerging agriculture and logging interests.

Posco's BIA 2 concession

Over the past year, MapHubs has been helping Mighty Earth ( - a non-profit that works to break the link between agribusiness and deforestation around the world - monitor a company called Posco Daewoo who was actively clearing intact forest for oil palm. Posco Daewoo is a corporate outlier in the palm oil industry today – it has not signed any sustainability pledges nor does it adhere to commonly accepted responsible production practices. For a region with over 300 traditional forest dependent tribes and half of Indonesia’s biodiversity, such as the endangered tree kangaroo, Posco's cavalier practices are extremely worrying.

The opening of Papua's forest

With most of Sumatra and Kalimantan's accessible lowland rainforest gone, the oil palm industry has been expanding rapidly into Papua. By February 2017, Posco Daewoo had cleared almost 23,000 hectares, an area larger than Washington DC, inside its huge 36,000+ ha concession, called Bio Inti Agrindo. At this rate, Posco could've cleared the entire concession by the end 2019. So we set to work.

Building the Evidence

To accurately map Posco Daewoo's concession, we used high resolution satellite imagery provided to Mighty Earth by Planet - a California-based satellite imaging company. Planet's flotilla of shoebox-sized satellites image the entire planet every day. This helped us to accurately detect deforestation the precise period it was cleared.

Turning images into maps

To create maps, we integrated Planet satellite scenes into MapHubs so we could map the cleared areas. Using MapHubs mapping tools, we traced the new clearances and calculated their size within Posco Daewoo’s concession boundary. This allowed us to say with a high degree of accuracy how much forest was cleared from month to month.

Sharing maps

Mighty Earth shared the interactive maps we created with the company, its’ investors, journalists, and other NGOs in Posco Daewoo’s home country of Korea and around the world. The maps bolstered Mighty Earth’s ongoing campaign to stop Posco Daewoo’s deforestation by providing irrefutable proof that Posco was clearing intact rainforest. The findings from our mapping were covered in news stories around the world, such as Politico Europe, One World in the Netherlands (see English translation here), Korea Expose, and Mongabay.

The bulldozers stop

Bulldozed roads but forest still intact

In the fall of 2017, we noticed a dramatic slowdown in deforestation rates. The road building ceased and clearance was reduced to small remnant patches. By February of 2018, the relentless march eastward finally came to a halt, leaving the remaining forest, larger than Manhattan, still standing—at least for now.

BIA II with Manhattan as a comparison

Deforestation-free palm oil is slowly becoming the new norm

Posco Daewoo is failing to comply with the responsible production standards required by the world’s largest palm oil buyers and, as a result, is being excluded from their supply chains. Posco Daewoo recently lost a retail partnership with the UK’s largest drugstore retailer, Boots, over its deforestation. And controversy is brewing in the Netherlands over the Dutch Pension Fund’s investments in Posco, due to its rainforest destruction. The Dutch national TV station ran a 16 minute segment on the issue last week, entitled “Dirty Investing”.

As the European Union mulls excluding palm oil-based biofuels from the EU’s renewable energy directive, companies like Posco could also see its crops blocked from lucrative markets and investment. Unsustainable agriculture of today will likely be the unsustainable businesses of tomorrow.

Stronger monitoring creates better agriculture

By using MapHubs, NGOs such as Mighty Earth demonstrate that powerful monitoring tools are affordable and effective. Open source mapping tools are the availability of free satellite imagery are helping to turn the deforestation tide and create demand for more a sustainable and equitable approach to tropical agriculture. It is now becoming nearly impossible for companies like Posco to clear rainforest without us knowing about it.

Remaining vigilant

A Komodo Dragon, Komodo National Park

There is concern that Posco Daewoo is taking, what I call, a Komodo dragon approach to deforestation. These giant lizards will take a bite out of their prey with their bacterial ridden jaws and slowly stalk the wounded prey until it dies of infection. Without a clear commitment to zero deforestation, Posco Daewoo might be hoping it can lay low and wait to deliver the knock-out blow. But if they do, we'll be watching.

And as for me, I still hope to see Papua’s forest for the hull of dugout not just the flicker of my computer screen.