By Thomas Maschler, Leo Bottrill and Rachael Petersen

“Roads are the seeds of tropical forest destruction,” said the prominent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy. But until now, roads have been difficult to map and visualize, often discovered only after they have been abandoned and the damage to the forest around them has been done.

A new tool aims to bring these invisible roads into the spotlight by harnessing the power of crowdsourcing and images of earth from space. Logging Roads is a joint initiative of Global Forest Watch and Moabi to monitor the spread of logging roads across the Congo Basin in Central Africa. Together, with your help we are analyzing over a decade of satellite imagery to track rainforest logging road activity.

“Unofficial” or illegal logging roads are particularly problematic as they proceed without any precise information about their location, extent or rates of expansion. Roads now crisscross some of the world’s last remaining forests in the Amazon, Congo Basin and across Borneo. Providing easy access to once remote resources, road construction enables deforestation, habitat fragmentation, loss of biodiversity and erosion. Research has shown that 95 percent of forest loss occurs within 5 km of a road.


Wood Truck for the Company Fabrique Camerounaise de paquets (FIPCAM) near the village of Ngon. District of Ebolowa, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard for CIFOR Flickr).

Particularly in the Congo Basin, home to one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse intact forests, roads are a major indicator of deforestation and degradation. Illegal mining, poaching and logging as well as agricultural expansion often follow roads deep into the forest; and the problem is getting worse. The most recent study to map roads found that in some areas, such as northern Republic of Congo, the rate of road construction more than quadrupled—from 156 kilometers per year to more than 660 kilometers—between 1976 and 2003. In the following decade, between 2000 and 2013, intact forest landscapes in the Congo Basin waned by almost 10 million hectares. Around the same time (2002 to 2011), the elephant population in central Africa declined 62 percent and lost 30 percent of its geographic range, mostly due to ivory poaching. The remaining population can only be found where there is no sign of humans, far away from roads.

With tools developed by OpenStreetMap and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team (HOT), Logging Roads invites anyone with a passion for preserving our planet’s forests to add, edit and improve the geographic data that currently exist for the high-risk Congo Basin region. This data is available for free download, encouraging a greater awareness of the impact of logging activities on the region. It will also be incorporated into the Global Forest Watch and Moabi platforms, so that users can overlay roads with other information, such as protected areas, logging concessions and tree cover loss over time. This information will help decision makers prioritize conservation efforts, protected areas management and enable unprecedented analysis of how logging roads impact forests and other resources.

Since the launch of Logging Roads in the spring of 2015, over 30,000 roads were added to the platform. That’s more than 75,000 km of logging roads mapped to date. The initiative won the Citizen Science Challenge 2015 at the Eye on Earth Summit, which recognizes innovative efforts to harness crowdsourcing to tackle the biggest challenges facing planet earth.

For 2016, GFW and Moabi plan to expand the geographic focus of the initiative to other regions and are seeking for collaborating partners who would like to join in building a strong mapping community around roads in forested areas. Further improvements to the platform will include the integration of weekly deforestation alerts at high resolution to identify road construction as it happens, a key factor to be ahead of the game and to actually intervene in illegal cuts.

Forests have been prominent so far at the COP21 in Paris, and rightfully so as slowing or halting deforestation is critical to avoiding a climate catastrophe. However, decision-makers can’t tackle the root causes of forest loss without better understanding where – and how quickly – roads are penetrating once isolated forests.

Powered by the crowd, Logging offers an unprecedented look at where these roads exist. Armed with this information, decision-makers in the Congo Basin may be able to slow the route to forest destruction—and eventually prevent it altogether.

Leo Bottrill is the Director and Founder of Moabi DRC, a collaborative mapping initiative that aims to increase transparency and accountability on resource issues in DRC.BANNER PHOTO: website.