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Mitigating Deforestation in Cambodia with Tip and Cue Satellites

This report looks closer at the partnership between Amnesty International and Planet Labs, which uses satellite data and Tip and Cue strategies to identify, monitor, and mitigate environmental injustice in Cambodia and regulate deforestation's harm to people and the planet. 

Satellite image of agricultural field from above

When we think of modern environmental management, we tend to put greenhouse gas emissions and pollution at the front of our minds, but ecological risks are much broader than that and encompass a wide swath of issues, one of the most pressing being deforestation. 


According to studies by Our World In Data, Earth has lost more than 32% of its forests since the end of the last ice age, nearly 10,000 years ago. The 2 billion hectare loss of terrestrial forests equates to a land mass twice the size of the US, and estimates show that roughly half of that loss has occurred in the last century alone. 


A big part of the issue is simple; the global population is booming, and the amount of land needed for food and energy production is growing alongside it. Public and private organizations have since been tearing down vast areas of forested land, wetlands, and shrubbery to make room for agricultural production and energy facilities, but the mass clearing has led to numerous environmental issues that encompass everything from decreased carbon sequestration to land degradation. 


In Cambodia, the situation is alarmingly similar. Cambodia has witnessed a 29.5% loss of forests since 2001, accounting for more than 2.5 million hectares of land and approximately 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Over the last decade or so, from 2011-2021, deforestation rates have increased by nearly 75% - putting Cambodia at the top of the list regarding annual forest loss by country worldwide. 


While there is a clear lack of initiative from the Cambodian government to curb the impacts of the country’s illegal deforestation issues, public and private organizations with interests in human rights exist that do not take these problems so lightly. 


One of these organizations is Amnesty International - a global non-governmental organization focused on mitigating problems like deforestation to curb the impacts on human rights, environmental justice, and ecological conservation. However, these rights-focused organizations often lack the capabilities and technologies to adequately monitor and manage these problems. 


Just think; to assess the spread and impacts of deforestation in Cambodia, they need to be able to monitor massive areas of land, at least semi-continuously, which becomes nearly impossible without using artificial intelligence and space-based earth observation technologies. The problem stems beyond observation capabilities, as well. Not only do they need to monitor deforestation and forecast disaster potential, but they must also analyze the impacts of deforestation on specific land areas and prepare for the most effective and efficient land management and policy development strategies.

The above concerns outline why Amnesty International partners with Planet Labs to monitor land in Cambodia and curb the impacts deforestation has on human rights throughout the country. 


This report looks closer at the partnership between Amnesty International and Planet Labs, which uses satellite data and Tip and Cue strategies to identify, monitor, and mitigate environmental injustice in Cambodia and regulate deforestation's harm to people and the planet. 

The Challenge


The Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary is one of Asia’s most extensive evergreen forests, spreading across four Cambodian provinces and accounting for nearly 500,000 hectares of land. While the Cambodian government designated the area as a wildlife sanctuary in 2016, issues have arisen over the past decade that are putting severe pressure on the state of the land. One of the most challenging of these issues has been the Cambodian government's sale of timber rights just outside of Prey Lang’s eastern border. After the sale of timber rights to the land just outside of the sanctuary, the company that purchased the land rights has been actively cutting down timber - most of which has been done legally, at least concerning Cambodian law. 


Still, the logging operations have had an unexpected, yet clear, environmental impact on Prey Lang. 


Deforestation around Prey Lang’s borders has led to easy access for people and vehicles, many of which are moving into the sanctuary to carry out illegal logging operations. Since Prey Lang covers such a vast area of land, monitoring the area has proven exceedingly difficult for the team at Amnesty International. And because it is illegal for the local and indigenous populations to patrol the area, little can be done without deploying space-based earth observation technologies. 


Still, the solution isn’t as simple as applying some of the most common earth observation strategies, which often use low-resolution satellite sensors to provide imagery over a location of interest. Because the forest sits in a region with historically dense cloud cover, standard remote sensing becomes relatively obsolete - at least during periods of inclement weather and cloud cover. Even when low-resolution satellites can monitor an area void of cloud cover, degradation happens at the smallest levels, requiring a high level of detail for effective environmental monitoring. 


In the past, Amnesty International has utilized data from the University of Maryland to assess deforestation around Prey Lang. While the data provided by the university is indeed valuable, the capabilities delivered from these data are not sufficient to effectively manage the growing problem, as the data simply shows that the trees have been removed but does not provide a detailed analysis of the individual tree level. 

The Solution


In response to the limitations of datasets provided by the University of Maryland, Amnesty International has partnered with Planet Labs to provide a higher level of insight using Tip and Cue monitoring with small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Plantet’s medium-resolution, high-frequency satellites are used as ‘tipping’ satellites, which provide imagery and insight in areas of interest to task higher-resolution satellites to hone in on a location and provide a far more detailed outlook regarding the situation. 


Imagery from the high-resolution satellites have a spatial resolution of approximately 3m per pixel and can quickly and efficiently identify areas of deforestation in an expansive range. Since Planet’s satellites have a high daily revisit rate, the data provided by Planet allows for near real-time monitoring across the entirety of Prey Lang sanctuary, with detailed environmental parameters to help mitigate environmental damage and strategize for future land management. 


The imagery from Planet Labs and other similar high-resolution satellites, which are available through numerous earth observation companies, encompasses nearly all parameters concerning deforestation and can pick up everything from land tracks, roads, logs, machinery, vehicles, and degradation to land and trees. For example, the team at Amnesty International was able to use the high-resolution imagery from Planet to identify a new road outside of Prey Lang’s eastern border - which was determined to be a new road developed for easier access and logging transport in the sanctuary. 


Amnesty International and Planet Labs will continue exploring ways to develop newer, more effective monitoring strategies, including testing detection algorithms for radar imagery that can be used to monitor and predict land changes through dense cloud cover and inclement weather.

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