Mapping the Forests of the Future


It’s almost eery.  The first time you hear it approach, if you’re like my neighbor Ernesto, you may think it’s a bumble bee.  Or, to be more precise, the aggressive solitary bees called ronsapas that inhabit stumps of dead wood and defend their territory by way of nasty stings.  From a jungle perspective, you’d surely be forgiven for hitting the deck or breaking into a run when the sound first reaches your ears – that characteristic buzzing hum. 

It may not surprise you to learn that in our almost unbelievably technology-saturated, increasingly globalized world, even rainforest farmers know exactly what that sound is – a drone.  Call it tech appeal, or the stereotypical gadget fixation of the grownup boys of the world, but drones are just about everywhere these days, including in the Amazon of Peru.

If you’re like me (a late adopter), you may not realize that drones are more than just a novel way to capture a stunning image of your wedding or a sunset, more than just a toy.  In fact, drones are also powerful tools for scientific research.  Over the course of the last 15 months, Camino Verde has had the opportunity to put this instrument to valuable and surprisingly varied use – and save an incredible amount of work at the same time.


Drones Over Tambopata

Consider this: last year our Reforestation Center team, under Farm Manager Olivia Revilla and with the help of several interns, set out on an ambitious mission to document the trees we’ve planted. Around 50 acres of trees, tens of thousands of trees, representing our reforestation efforts of the last ten years and the tangible manifestation of our donors’ commitment (your commitment) to Amazon restoration. 

As you can imagine, making a map that includes every single tree, and keeping track of basic data for each – such as species, botanical family, height, diameter at breast height, etc. – was an incredibly time-consuming task, a labor of love aimed at helping us better measure our impact.  Months of work later, we had our first map for wide swathes of the farm – though not the whole planted area.  

We celebrated this first achievement and prepared ourselves mentally for the work involved in finishing the task.  It was right around that time, as we were contemplating methodologies to improve our efficiency for this arduous data collection, that a small group of Wake Forest students paid us a visit and flew a drone over the reforestation center for the first time ever.  The images captured were incredible.  It was frankly breathtaking to see the trees from above, to see how clearly the mixed agroforestry systems we plant resemble the wild forest. 


Mapping the Forests of the Future

Given the meteoric rise of drone technology, maybe it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that in the following months there were many more drone flyovers to come.  Our friends from Pacha Soap paid us a visit in February and captured breathtaking video of one of the largest, most impressive trees in 200 acres of primary rainforest areas we protect.  And then Wake Forest’s CINCIA research group – our staunch allies in reforestation and restoration activities in Madre de Dios, Peru – returned and flew again.  

To my amazement, after the last of these visits we were presented with a map that the drone had made for us.  By taking pictures of the ground at regular intervals and using software to stitch the images together, we got a better and more detailed map than from satellite or GPS.  Beautifully photographic, the map showed us our trees as they appear from above.  And further, it did the work of months of hand data collection in the span of a day.

As you may know, Camino Verde values monitoring and evaluation, following up on the trees we plant so that we can say clearly and unequivocally what our impact has been.  Drone technology is allowing us to greatly reduce the time and energy we spend on this necessary activity – so we can spend more time on our real work, our real passion, the planting of trees.


Plotting the Canopy

While a photographic map is valuable in and of itself, more targeted drone work has given us an additional something that seems almost impossibly futuristic: a three-dimensional diagram of the canopy of trees of our reforestation center.  This 3D point plotting tells us the height of trees, the size and shape of their canopy, and – we hope, soon – gives us the ability to calculate ever more accurately the carbon captured and stored by our trees.  

A giant buzzing bumble bee of plastic and metal hovers over the tree tops, moves back and forth in an orderly pattern programmed in by GPS, and spits out a report of all it has seen.  The work involved in the flyover and the production of the maps was funded by a few of our loyal donors. We’re hoping your support will help us make new maps each year – documenting the progression and growth of our reforestation strategies in plainly visible terms.  Here’s how big the trees were last year; here’s how big they are this year. 

Annual flyovers also allow us to closely monitor the protected primary forest area I mentioned earlier.  By comparing maps we can notice trees that fall in storms, from old age, or by human hands (however on this last note, I’m pleased to report that our presence has prevented illegal tree cutting on our land for over a decade now).  

Sure, technology is far from a panacea.  Human technology is obviously responsible for enormous destruction in our world.  And true solutions are found first and foremost in the hearts and minds of people, not in gadget wizardry whose origin, it must be remembered, is military in nature.  But placed in its appropriate role as a tool of human ingenuity, an extension of our eyes and hands, some technologies can help us bring about restoration on a previously inconceivable scale.  Drones aren’t the answer – but they are a valuable piece in a toolkit for landscape stewardship that also includes several perfectly respectable devices that date back to the Stone Age. 

Other News

Flying drones is far from being the principal activity of our past several months.  Since our last post we’ve continued to expand our two forestry nurseries in Madre de Dios.  We’ve handed over thousands of tree seedlings to our CINCIA partners for planting out in degraded former gold mining lands.  Thousands more we’ve planted ourselves.  We exported our first large lot of Amazonian essential oil for sale in the US as part of our efforts to diversify our revenue streams.  And you may have noticed that the new incarnation of is upon us.

Meanwhile, we are engaged with several companies to improve their supply chains for ingredients sourced in the Amazon. Think cacao, essential oil, and vanilla, just to name a few. Think soap makers, natural cosmetics companies, and even food producers. Camino Verde Consultations continues to share our model across a broader context. As I write this, I’m en route back to Peru after another impactful visit to reforestation partners in Uganda.  These kinds of work are paid for by companies and organizations that believe in what we do and the value of what we offer. 

We’re excited about the ways we’re diversifying Camino Verde’s funding sources, building in sustainability for the organization’s future.  And it’s true that we are still an overwhelmingly donor-funded organization.  It is your contributions that make possible the steady rise of our annual tree planting numbers and the expansion of our farmer outreach.  At this lull season experienced by many non-profits, your contribution helps us keep working hard throughout the year. We do it for a simple reason: because we know the Amazon can be restored.  In our lifetime.  

Thanks for reading and thanks for lending a hand.  If anything you’ve read or seen here resonates with you, please share it with a friend you think will share your enthusiasm.  Word of mouth is how people find out about Camino Verde.  And if you’re moved to donate or contribute in other ways, thank you. 

Robin Van Loon