When we launched MapHubs in January 2017, our goal was simply to survive. Like any startup, we had big ideas, an MVP (a minimum viable product), and no clients. Kris, MapHubs’ Co-Founder and CTO, and I both had a firm belief that mapping tools needed to be easier to use and more accessible to organizations doing high impact work, particularly those working on complex natural resource problems.
We wanted to make powerful but easy to use mapping tools, specifically designed for sustainability professionals, journalists, and watchdogs. We wanted to help these groups because we see maps has a critical tool in developing a new more accountable and transparent natural resource sector. We focus on the tech, so our clients focus on the story. And there are many stories.
We greatly appreciate all the organizations that took a chance on a scrappy startup with a new approach to mapping. In this post, we want to look back over projects from the past couple of years that we’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with.
Big infrastructure for a Big River
The Congo River or the “river that swallows all rivers” - a wide and muddy vein that arches across the DRC’s verdant heart - provides food and transport for millions of Congolese who live and travel its length. It’s also the potential source of power for both DRC’s mining sector as well as power hungry neighbors like South Africa. Resource Matters (resourcematters.org), an NGO dedicated to fostering transparency and accountability in the energy and mining sector, chose the MapHubs-powered Map for Environment platform to map existing and planned hydropower, mining permits, and associated infrastructure.
Resource Matters' groundbreaking research and detail maps have produced the most detailed public maps of planned hydropower for the country and documented the often opaque relationships between the energy suppliers and mining interests. As DRC starts a new political chapter in its tumultuous history, organizations like Resource Matters will be critical to helping Congolese citizens keep their elected officials honest and ensure that their natural resources benefit the whole of society not just the wealthy few.
Converting grasslands to toilet paper
Demand for toilet and tissues is driving land conflicts in vast grassland biome of Cerrado, Brazil. As part of the Mongabay series on Amazon Agribusiness, we helped journalists map the expansion of eucalyptus plantations in the vast grassland biome of Cerrado. The investigation found that consumers buying toilet paper and tissues such as Kleenex may inadvertently be fuelling land conflicts, environmental crimes and the loss of forests and savannah in Brazil. Suzano and Fibria, two Brazilian pulp and paper companies, have been accused of using deceptive and coercive tactics to seize land from local communities. We used Hansen Tree Cover Loss and GLAD alerts to calculate rates of plantation clearance of thousands of eucalyptus plantations. This analysis illustrated that despite the land grab, many plantations had not been cleared, so farmers have yet to even benefit.
Stopping bulldozers in Papua
Remote Papua province in Indonesia has become the latest battleground between agriculture conglomerates, indigenous communities, and watchdogs over some of the last remaining tracks of untrammeled Southeast Asian rainforest. In early 2017, we began working with Mighty Earth (mightyearth.org), a DC based environmental watchdog, to monitor companies suspected of clearing primary rainforest for palm oil. We map and monitored the concessions of Posco Daewoo who had already cleared 23,000 hectares - about the same size as Washington DC. We used tree cover loss, GLAD alerts, and high resolution satellite imagery to document Posco’s clearance of primary rainforest. With consistent and accurate reporting shared both with the company, its shareholders and buyers, the company eventually stopped clearing forest towards the end of 2017 and in 2018 announced, they will join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Seeing the forests from the farm
When it comes to forest monitoring, one scale that matters most - the farm. In October 2017, with support from Commonwealth Development Corporation, we launched a plantation monitoring system for Feronia - the largest oil palm producer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The portal provides monthly public deforestation monitoring reports for Feronia’s three concessions but manages a spatial database of both company and third party land use information. Reports monitor remaining forest inside Feronia’s concessions with maps published every month. All data and imagery are open and free to use - a powerful precedent for other companies to follow. It also illustrates that proprietary imagery and detection algorithms are not necessary for farm level monitoring, which dramatically lower the financial barrier for entry for even small producers.
Roads through Paradise
Like cracks in a vase, logging roads have fractured the forests of the Solomon Islands. Working with Global Witness (globalwitness.org), we used OpenStreetMap - the citizen-powered map of the world - to map over 12,600 km of roads - more roads than the entire of downtown Beijing. The resulting report revealed that roads have opened more than 50% of the country’s forest below 400 meters accessible to conversion. This threatens the remaining forest. Much of the timber is destined for China and . Global Witness' report brought the issue into greater public scrutiny leading one province to freeze new logging operations.
An environmental map of the world
Mapping mining permits and palm oil concessions is useful but what about the base map? Google Maps has mapped major cities, helping us get from A to B but rural areas, particularly in developing countries remain under mapped. Rural roads and trails, land use types, buildings, and even entire towns, remain unmapped. OpenStreetMap - the Wikipedia of maps - has build a community filling this gap through the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap initiative (HOT-OSM) but even their efforts, don’t often target the remote, sparsely populated regions where biodiversity is still abundant like protected areas and forest regions. To address this gap, we also launched OSM Earth (osm.earth) - a new platform for coordinating OpenStreetMap mapping for the natural resources.
With support from the European Union Joint Research Center-lead Biopama project, we adapted tools such as Tasking Manager and iD Editor to be more tailored to natural environment mapping tasks such as mapping protected area features or logging roads. We tested out these new tools at a series of volunteer mapping events in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Washington DC. We mapped communities surrounding Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, agriculture encroachment in the Dominican Republic, and illegal logging in Papua New Guinea.
Mapping the Cocoa Crisis in West Africa
CDI Forest loss between 1990 and 2015
And finally, we also worked with Mighty Earth mapping the unfolding cocoa crisis in the Ivory Coast. Our analysis illustrated that the Ivory Coast’s forest cover had shrunk to only 3.7% due to the illegal encroachment of logging and cocoa industries into protected areas. In the space of a few years, entire national parks such as Marahoue and Mont Peko have been almost completely converted to cocoa growing. To make matters worse, chocolate companies have been buying cocoa sourced from these converted protected areas.
The ensuing controversy lead to commitments from the companies and the traders they buy from to implement zero deforestation under the Cocoa and Forests initiative. In practice, however these commitments have proven difficult to implement. We contributed analysis to Mighty’s latest report that showed that in both Ivory Coast and Ghana, cocoa-linked deforestation has continued in protected areas and our maps even appeared in the Guardian.
So what’s next?
Selous Reserve, Tanzania
We will write a new blogpost soon on some new MapHubs’ developments. In 2019, we hope to grow our team and offer new services that making forest monitoring faster and easier as well as making MapHubs technology more accessible wherever you go. We firmly believe that by democratizing mapping and providing access to tools to those that need them, we can build more accountability in critical decisions affecting our planet. We’ve made a good start but there is much more to do.
So if you are looking for help, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s see what we can do together.