Three men in camouflage uniforms look at a low-flying drone while one of the men controls it with a remote control.
Cambodian forest rangers learning to use a drone for forest monitoring and validation of satellite data.

Eyes in the Sky: Geospatial Technology and Artificial Intelligence Provide Unique Opportunities to Transform Forest Conservation in Cambodia

By Ankit Joshi

Monitoring forest loss remotely is needed for formulating policies and strategies to address deforestation. Currently, rangers spend long periods of time patrolling forests to monitor forest health and checking for illegal logging and land clearances. Thanks to technological advances, the use of geospatial technology and artificial intelligence has proven to be an effective alternative to combating illegal logging and land clearance and can now identify these disturbances in near-real time.

Cambodia has grappled with deforestation for many years. The country experienced a significant reduction in forest cover from 73 percent in 1965 to 47 percent in 2018. A recent USAID-funded report on Commodity-driven Forest Loss in Southeast Asia found that the primary drivers of deforestation in Cambodia are legal and illegal logging, charcoal production, mining, and economic land concessions for commodity crop plantations.

The Prey Lang Extended Landscape is a region in Cambodia where these drivers are very visible, challenging the implementation of USAID’s Greening Prey Lang project, which aims to promote resilient, low-emission, and inclusive, sustainable management of this area of Cambodia. The Prey Lang Extended Landscape covers over 3.3 million hectares of forests, watersheds, and agricultural land across four provinces in Cambodia. It is home to more than 1 million people, numerous protected areas, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites, and dozens of endangered animal and plant species.

SERVIR-Mekong, a regional initiative of USAID and NASA, has teamed up with USAID Greening Prey Lang to address some of these problems by developing the Cambodia Protected Area Alerts System. This system monitors near real-time forest changes and external threats such as forest fires within the Prey Lang Extended Landscape. The Cambodia Protected Area Alerts System is a key component of the Protected Area Monitoring Platform, launched recently by Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, which integrates ground-based and remotely sensed data to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of law enforcement and conservation activities.

Once fully operational, the Cambodia Protected Area Forest Alert System will equip the Cambodian Ministry of Environment with “eyes in the sky” that will enable them to remotely monitor an area of 6.2 million hectares from their desktops. The effectiveness of this technology depends on multiple factors. Close and timely coordination among all the relevant stakeholders is critical. Deforestation alerts generated by the system must be investigated and addressed by authorities per the Protected Area Monitoring Platform’s standard operating procedures. If deforestation alerts are not investigated and addressed then these technological innovations will not result in improved forest protection.

The system also provides verifiable, transparent, and accountable site-specific information to support Cambodia’s national forest monitoring programs. This is required in order to attract sustainable financing for Cambodian conservation and carbon credit investments. According to Ecosystem Marketplace, Cambodia has already raised over $11 million for forest conservation from international companies in Europe, Japan, and the United States. An Asian Development Bank Study estimated the market for avoided deforestation in Cambodia at $316 million between 2015 and 2020. This number is only going to expand in the future as carbon prices stabilize and increase. Furthermore, as a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Cambodia has supported the development of REDD+ and has an ambitious target to reduce its annual deforestation in half by 2026, with 2006 serving as the base year. As the REDD+ market expands across Cambodia, the Cambodia Protected Area Forest Alert System can be used to monitor and address illegal logging and land clearance.

Strategic Objective
Biodiversity, Emissions, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD+), Forestry, Sustainable Landscapes

Ankit Joshi

Ankit Joshi is the SERVIR-Mekong Communications Lead at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC). He has extensive experience in strategic communication, stakeholder engagement, program administration, and fundraising.  Prior to joining ADPC, Ankit led strategic sustainability initiatives at National University of Singapore, including the NUSDeltares Alliance. He received his undergraduate degree in English Literature from University of Mumbai, India, and master’s degrees in public administration from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and environmental policy from Roskilde University, Denmark.

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