Saving the forests with Eden and DroneDeploy

CALIFORNIA – Los Angeles-based tree planting organisation, Eden Reforestation Projects, last week celebrated their fifteenth anniversary by announcing that they had planted over 333 million trees in the eight countries they work in.

Which is just too bad; because trees may be life, but they are not WIFI. All they do is provide us with the oxygen we breathe, give a habitat for animals, purify our water sources, control flooding and erosion and help to replenish the soil with nutrients needed for farming and stay the threat of climate change. But they do not give out WIFI; or else we would have planted billions of them in our homes by now.

Trees are so useless.

“To put this accomplishment in perspective, in the summer of 2019, we were planting around 5 million trees per month,” said Eden Reforestation Projects founder and CEO, Dr. Stephen Fitch. “Now, we are planting over 15 million trees per month. We will continue to scale and expand into other project nations. By the end of this year, we expect to be planting over 20 million trees per month”.

Eden’s work is important now more than ever, as reforestation is critical to combating climate change, protecting endangered species, and supporting local communities. Mozambique – where Eden runs one of its reforestation projects – has been on the frontline of climate change, with a number of cyclones battering its shores and leaving a trail of destruction. The one in March 2019, called Cyclone Idai, killed more than 600 people in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, injuring an estimated 1,600, affecting more than 1.8 million and leaving an estimated $773 million in damages to buildings, infrastructure and agriculture.  

Meteorologists say good forests will act as a good resistor to the wind speeds picked up by cyclones from the sea. But Mozambique has lost 75 percent of the its trees to deforestation. In Madagascar, only 10 percent of the country’s original forest remains, while 40 percent of Indonesia’s mangrove forests have been lost in the last three decades alone. And in Nepal, 25 percent of the population is living below the poverty line, of which an estimated 70 percent depend on the forest for sustenance.

In Mozambique, Victorino (foreground) has fallen in love with drones

“Sloshing through the mud within a massive mangrove restoration project is no simple task, as the restoration sites often reach to the horizon,” says Fitch

It is a really heavy undertaking, trying to reclaim forests where balding deforestation has taken root, abetted by man’s hand. Which is why Eden has decided to enlist the help of local people wherever they have reforestation projects set up. By employing local villagers, Eden gives them a decent income so they can provide for their families. Through their “Employ to Plant” methodology, Eden provides fair-wages and consistent employment to thousands of people in communities suffering from extreme poverty. The employees are tasked with producing, planting, and guarding an average of 5 million trees every month.

The organisation has a staff complement of 25,000 employees who have succeeded in planting a third of a billion trees in Madagascar, Haiti, Nepal, Indonesia Mozambique, Kenya, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

And they have employed drone technology too. In addition to the physical human resources, Eden roped in the services of drones to help them with mapping, monitoring, and verifying its reforestation projects. Because planting trees in remote communities and rugged terrain, is no easy feat.

“We use drones to map out and assess ground conditions, before a project starts, and fly the drones over time to look at the change of the forest as the plants grow,” says Ezra Neale, Director Forest Monitoring and Evaluation at Eden. “As trees become established, we’ll monitor it over time using drone technology.”

It was not always love at first sight though; in the initial days, Ezra found drones to be fraught with handicaps and very cumbersome and difficult to use … and worse, you had to write your own program to work with them; and you need coding skills for that, and to manage all of the data the drone produced from its flying missions.

Those days are now a distant memory; an anecdote to be told over a fire – only Eden hates fires set to their trees so you’d have to find another place to tell the anecdote. Maybe over a beer. The organisation found a willing drone software partner in DroneDeploy, and everything has been smooth sailing ever since.

“DroneDeploy’s incredible piece of software has allowed us to take on all challenges that made using the drones a challenge for us,” said Ezra.

“We map out a polygon or a reforestation site – it’s kind of the fundamental unit that we do monitoring on – and DroneDeploy has an easy app where you can just upload that polygon from a KML file from Google Earth, and then very easily you program the flight plan ahead of time, plan out where the drone is going to fly, how many batteries it’s going to take, how much time it’s going to take, and analyse flights at different elevations,” Neale said.

The wide deployment of DroneDeploy across Eden’s operations followed three months of initial testing in Madagascar. During that period, Eden was able to map approximately 1,011 hectares in a single day in one of the most remote locations in Madagascar.

“It’s simple tweaks that any of team members can do ahead of time, before they are ready for the field – physically getting there is one of the hardest things because you’re on very bad roads or travelling by boat – but once they’re at the site and they have the whole thing in place, they can literally turn it on and the drone immediately starts flying along that predefined flight plan to take individual images.”

One of these employees is Victorino, who works as part of the monitoring team in Mozambique. Victorino has become adept at operating a drone, and works to identify and map new reforestations while also monitoring the success of those projects. He has become an invaluable member of the Mozambican team led by National Field Director in Mozambique Guido Cuamba, and can provide for his family while doing good for his country.

Tanjona at work

In Madagascar, Eden’s International Director for Madagascar, James Shattenberg hired the services of a youth called Tanjona Rasamoelijaona in 2017. The boy was hawking cell phones from a small market on the streets of Mahajanga, the port city on the North coast of Madagascar where he grew up. With no formal education, Tanjona had zero experience with technology, let alone drone technology. His first day at Eden must have been head-spinning.

But he stuck on; in July last year, Tanjona began flying drones as part of Eden’s reforestation efforts. As he quickly understood the advantages of drone technology, Tanjona’s projects became extraordinarily efficient. Today, he travels all over the country, flying drones that do the work at more than 30 sites that Eden is working on restoring.

“Bagus from Indonesia, Tanjona from Madagascar, and Victorino from Mozambique are all experiencing the dignity of employment as monitor and verification agents for Eden Reforestation Projects,” said Fitch. “Every week the guys head out to map and verify thousands of hectares of emerging forest. Without the use of drones, their jobs would be exhausting and nearly impossible.”

To put their responsibilities in perspective, during the 2020 calendar year, Eden estimates that it will plant well over 100 million more trees as they continue to scale up operations.

Fitch added, “Through the use of drone technology, their work is more comfortable, more reliable, and enjoyable. Ultimately, the guys are crucial to proving that Eden is doing what we say we are doing. Flying a monitoring and verification drone is essential to Eden’s work. It’s also downright fun!”

Naturally, DroneDeploy expressed its pride at working with Eden Reforestation, and saluted the organisation for restoring 333 million worth of green on earth.

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