How Do You Save Sumatra? Google Map It
Andrew D. Kaspar
Sumatra becomes a digital paint-by-number as you play with the layering functions of the “Google Earth: Eyes on the Forest” map. With one click, the world’s sixth-largest island becomes a sea of green rainforest. Another click reveals a decidedly less emerald present-day reality.
Toggling the various data sets can be an enlightening — and for the environmentally conscious, alarming — exercise.
The project, unveiled last week, is a joint venture of Google Earth Outreach, the World Wildlife Fund and Eyes on the Forest, a Sumatra-based coalition of environmental NGOs. It organizes decades of data in a visual array that sheds light on a bedeviling question: Just what’s really out there in Sumatra, and how quickly are the forests being destroyed?
Users can query the Google Maps Engine for an assortment of data on Sumatra, such as what land is ostensibly under government protection, what types of forests exist and once existed, and which land tracts are considered high-priority conservation areas.
In the spotlight are four critically endangered species — the Sumatran rhino, elephant, orangutan and tiger — that are often the “faces” of deforestation on the island. Users can set the map to reveal the shrinking ranges of these animals over the last 25 years.
It becomes clear that Sumatra’s shrinking forests are sending these animals the way of the dodo.
Afdhal Mahyuddin, a spokesman for the coalition, said a synthesis of governmental and NGO data began in the early 2000s. The tool’s creators hope the map can help inform policy debates, raise awareness and maybe, just maybe, slow the rate of deforestation.
“Now is the time to turn these static reports into dynamic, living web-based databases,” Afdhal wrote in an e-mail to the Jakarta Globe. “WWF and EoF focused on Sumatra … as it is the island with the highest deforestation rate in Indonesia and where transparency on the drivers of that deforestation is needed the most.”
The most sobering feature of the new tool is the ability to push “play” on the deforestation that has taken place on the island since 1985, watching the dramatic withering of the island’s forest cover play out on loop. Based on WWF data, the Google Maps Engine shows the incremental loss of just less than 50 percent of natural forest cover since 1985.
Map layers also address the broader issue of deforestation’s contribution to carbon dioxide-induced global warming, which is taking place in rainforests across the world. The depletion of carbon stocks stored up in trees and peatland is a problem not just for Sumatran tigers and rhinos, but for humankind’s posterity as well.
The project is a logical outgrowth of two things: the fact that Indonesia’s rainforests are seeing some of the fastest rates of deforestation on the planet, and Indonesians’ insatiable appetite for all things web-related. Maps may succeed where protests and studies have not.
It is part of a broader suite of Google Earth projects with a philanthropic bent, typically launched in collaboration with NGOs. Recent projects include a map to track land-mine clearing around the world; partnering with an indigenous tribe to protect the Amazon rainforest they call home; and a map revealing the effects of mountaintop mining removal in the United States’ Appalachian Mountains.
The Sumatra team hopes to eventually include other regions and data sets.
“Ultimately, a nationwide civil society-driven ‘Internet map facility’ like this would be very desirable,” Afdhal wrote. “But it would only work and stay current if it is supported by all the stakeholders who have and are collecting detailed knowledge on any given geographical area to be collected by the facility.”
“Further expansion is planned, but will also depend on how fast we can find funding for the work.”
And as they say, money doesn’t grow on trees.