The World Wildlife Foundation illustrates the problem vividly: 48 football fields worth of rainforest are destroyed every minute.
It’s startling, but Topher White might have a partial solution.
White is the CEO of Rainforest Connection, a startup that collects old smartphones, retrofits them with solar panels, sticks them high in the forest canopy, and uses them as invisible warning devices to pick up whenever a chainsaw buzzes to life so it can alert the local authorities.
Think of it as wearable tech, but for trees.
According to White, the solution is the most obvious simply because it stops the problem at the source.
“Instead of it becoming this large forensic operation, where somebody has to go to jail, you can diffuse the situation before it gets out of hand,” he tells Tech Insider. “That’s really the first time it’s been possible for our partners in the field.”
So far, those partners have been mostly from Brazil, where the company has installed more than 30 individual phones over the last couple years.
Today, there are six phones live in the region, with more coming in the future, White says. Each one is capable of picking up activity within a radius of roughly one square mile. When it hears a chainsaw or motorcycle, it sends an alert over an ordinary cell phone network to the local rangers, who can then rush to the scene within minutes and stop the activity.
White estimates this method of logging detection could help reduce the practice by as much as 90% if expanded worldwide.
Rainforest Connection has its sights set on Ecuador by the end of this year. The goal there will be to install between 10 and 15 phones. Later on, it plans to move into Borneo, Indonesia, and other countries in Latin America.
White’s vision is much larger than a handful of countries, however. He wants to end illegal logging practices for good, and he sees his DIY cell phone web as the ticket to that reality.
Over the next couple months, Rainforest Connection plans to release an app that lets users listen in real-time to the sounds of the rainforest as broadcast by the canopy phones.
“Instead of learning about what was cut last week or what was cut this morning, it’s about a tree being cut right now,” he says. “And you can listen in if you want. It becomes a very experiential sort of thing.”
White admits that deforestation isn’t a sexy topic. environment.
The problem is simply too large and too far away from most industrialized countries to make any lasting impact on most people. This is despite the fact rainforests cover roughly a third of the entire Earth’s land mass, providing the very oxygen we breathe every day.
But attitudes have started shifting in recent years.
At this year’s Climate Talks in Paris, 195 countries agreed to enact legislation to combat the effects of climate change. While still optimistic about these kinds of interventions, White wishes people didn’t assume large-scale change is the only way to fight large-scale problems.
“Everyone is going out and buying electric cars and smart thermostats,” he says, “but I feel like this is the cheapest and fastest way for us to fight climate change.”