Bepnoroti Atydjare has fought hard to preserve the rainforest near the Xingu River, in eastern Brazil. “Many times we have to go and challenge the invaders on our own because we don’t have the support from the local police. This is very hard and often quite frightening,” says Atydjare, a native of the Kayapo tribe. “There are seven villages on the river that we worked to protect.”
Illegal gold mining, timber cutting, and fishing are the three main reasons for deforestation, he says.
The Earth’s lungs are threatened as never before. The U.N. says protecting forests is a cost-effective way to provide a third of necessary global carbon emissions cuts by 2030. But currently we’re losing about one soccer field worth of forest per second.
To support people like Atydjare, tech entrepreneur James Collado founded the startup Gainforest to pay forest protectors using an almost entirely automated infrastructure built on top of blockchain and AI. He hopes the technology can provide a simple, swift, and transparent way of incentivizing local people to defend the forest’s frontlines.
Around the world, indigenous groups have faced increasing violence from illegal developers. But if forest inhabitants could receive evidence-driven payments for protecting forests, this might help turn the tide, campaigners believe.
“We calculate how difficult we deem your job to be, as not all parts of the forest are equally hard to defend,” says Collado. “The riskier the plot of land, the larger the reward for you.”
Gainforest is creating blockchain-based smart contracts with caretakers of specific tracts of forests. Groups who successfully protect their part of the forest receive automated payments as the contract period ends (which can be anywhere from one to 24 months). Those who fail to preserve the forest lose their reward. The nonprofit uses satellite imagery to monitor the forest, feeding images into an AI trained to detect whether forests have been disturbed.
“The efficiency is huge,” says Collado. “There is almost no human intervention, and everyone can see what’s happening and which parts of the forest are being protected.”
He has been traveling throughout Chile to build partnerships for the first Gainforest projects and is hoping to have the program fully up and running by the end of 2019. “Once the technology has been trained, we don’t see an issue with scaling into very large areas,” he says.
Atydjare says the Kayapo need “resources to protect our lands” as well as “support from the local police and government and above all, what we crave the most, is a respect for our culture and the way we live.”
Projects that empower indigenous communities are proven to save some of the world’s forests and other natural ecosystems. Vast tracts of Amazon forest remain intact today solely because of indigenous groups supported by NGO alliances.
Brazil’s Kayapo tribe has protected 38,610 square miles of Amazon forest over several decades. “If it were not for their alliance with our NGOs, the Kayapo would have lost their land. Satellite data bears out this result clearly,” says Barbara Zimmerman, director of the Kayapo Project at the Environmental Defense Fund.
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But without a functioning management structure in place, “any kind of help for local communities will simply evaporate as wisps of smoke,” she says.
Forest degradation accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Under the 2016 Paris Agreement, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program was set up as a way to pay developing countries for protecting forests. However, implementing REDD+ has proved problematic, because governments have slow-walked commitments and funds have been hard to access.
Tim Hoogenberk, researcher at the nonprofit Blockchain Climate Institute, says smart contracts can help smooth of the process of getting funds to defenders on the ground. “Once a smart contract has been set up, the availability of funds is ensured. Parties can see on the blockchain that the funds are actually there.”
“Countries will only start undertaking REDD+ activities once they have certainty about the availability of those funds,” he adds. “Otherwise, converting the forests into land for agriculture can be more attractive. But with an open blockchain, the public would be able to view all transactions.”
While blockchain based smart contracts hold potential to revolutionize national level payments for forest protection, the end goal is to build a long-term, grassroots movement. “If they live by a forest, they will able to get a stake to protect it. Anyone has the potential to participate,” says Collado.
Main image: A Kayapo tribesman overlooking the rainforest, courtesy of Barbara Zimmerman.