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Using technology to monitor and share information on rainforests and forest peoples’ rights

The primer is designed as a starting point for organisations and activists interested in adding technology to improve their advocacy work, but can also be useful for organisations that have some experience using technology and want to reflect on how to increase the impact of their work. It has been structured so that you don’t need to read the whole thing, but can explore sections that are relevant for you and find more information elsewhere. Download the whole primer (1.6MB pdf). or read it online below.

This primer:

  • shows ways in which technology can help your work,

  • highlights some of the tools that are available,

  • gives practical information to help you decide what you need, and

  • provides links for more detailed guidance on specific tools and strategies.

What do we mean by “technology”?

The word “technology” in this primer doesn’t refer to a specific technological solution (like satellite maps) or tool (like mobile phones). We’re including a whole range of tools, methods and techniques: computer software, digital devices like mobile phones or cameras, analysing large amounts of data, using online tools to communicate information, and more.

How to use this guide

This guide is not comprehensive – it gives you the basic information you need to get started, with a selection of good places to go if you want to learn more. It has three main parts:

Setting a solid strategy

This is probably where most projects fail. A successful project requires explicit goals and a solid strategy – from planning out how the project will work, to managing information when the project is in progress. The first section of this primer sets out general principles and things to think about when designing any project that uses technology.

Overview of Tools

The second section introduces some of the tools that can be useful in rainforest-focused projects, grouped into six types:

  • mobile (cell) phone applications to collect and record data from the field

  • maps produced together with communities (participatory mapping)

  • satellite imagery

  • do-it-yourself aerial photography (such as drones)

  • audio and video

  • online maps that combine and layer different types of data on top of each other

Additional resources

The final section lists a series of guides and tools with more detailed information that can help you take the next steps in adding new technology into your project.


By Lars Løvold - Director, Rainforest Foundation Norway

How can new and evolving technology be useful in advocacy for rainforest protection and forest peoples’ rights? This broad, open question is the starting point for this primer. In 1989, when Rainforest Foundation Norway was founded to promote rights-based rainforest protection, phones were hardly mobile and the world wide web was science fiction. A lot has changed.

Now advanced technology has become cheaper, more available and easier to use, opening up exciting new opportunities for rainforest monitoring and sharing of information. Every week a new tool or platform seems to be created to help us map forest resources, detect illegal logging, report on human rights abuses or trace the origins of commodities.

However, other things have not changed at all. Indigenous peoples and local organizations in rainforest countries still struggle to claim their customary rights and protect rainforests under difficult conditions. Often infrastructure and means of communication are poor, and lack of training and funding can be serious obstacles to taking advantage of the opportunities that technology offer.

In general, the interest groups behind unsustainable forest exploitation have more resources to use new, evolving technologies than the local groups or civil society organizations working for forest protection. Even so, there are a lot of amazing examples of how local activists employ new technology in ingenious ways to make their work more effective and efficient. Unfortunately, there are also a great number of unsuccessful projects where money and hard work are wasted. Although objectives and tools vary greatly, what the successful projects generally have in common is that they are solidly designed and based on clear goals and a thorough analysis of the problem at hand.

Seeing how important solid planning and design is for the success of technology-projects, Rainforest Foundation Norway has partnered with The Engine Room to make a basic introduction to the use of technology in rights-based rainforest protection. In the process of mapping the myriad of existing initiatives that could be useful in our work and for our partners, we decided that a basic introduction to the use of technology in rights-based rainforest protection could be useful to many.

That is the purpose of this report: It describes advantages and disadvantages of different tools that may be used, using concrete examples. It also provides a step-by-step guide to strategic project development, suggesting essential questions that must be answered to ensure that technology serves the project’s needs and not the other way around.

While the guide can be read from start to finish, it is designed to allow readers to easily access the information that interests them the most. Suggestions for further reading are provided for those who want to explore a particular tool or experience in more detail.

Use of technology has a great potential for strengthening indigenous peoples’ rights and forest protection - and it has been inspiring to see so many inventive ways that indigenous peoples and local activists already employ technology.

Hopefully this primer can help those who want to start new projects - or further develop existing ones - to use technology effectively, as well as inspire us to learn more from each other’s experiences.

Information technology and forests
What’s new about technology?

Sharing information is easier: Internet access and mobile phone networks are spreading across countries and into previously isolated areas. Organisations can now document and share information about incidents as they happen (in ‘real time’). Technology also makes it easier to collaborate with organisations from other countries (like the Amazon-focused network RAISG) or other continents (like Rainforest Foundation Norway’s network of partners).

Tools are being developed for your needs: A wide range of tools – many designed for use in rainforest environments – have been shown to make it easier to campaign and monitor information.

It’s simpler to find and use the data you want: Data on topics like land usage, forest cover and natural resources used to be hard to find, expensive or difficult to use. Now, this is changing. Combined with information collected by your organisation (such as community boundaries or biodiversity), this can give you a rich, powerful set of data to use in advocacy.

Technology is cheaper and more powerful: More and more organisations can now think about accessing tools like smartphones and data visualisation software, which were previously out of reach.

What’s not new

Technology still needs humans: No matter how sophisticated the technology, it cannot replace the need for strong relationships with communities, based on trust and knowledge of local context.

Introducing any new tool takes time, money and effort: Nothing slows a project down like discovering too late what resources a technology component needs. Project staff and local communities need time and ongoing support to use new tools or information sources to their full potential. Technology is never a magic bullet and rarely a quick fix.

Technology can help organisations protect forests or people’s livelihoods, but it also helps those with the opposite objectives: Governments seeking to suppress data or companies behaving illegally also benefit from technological advances, and often have the advantage of more money and human resources.

Principles in designing projects involving technology

Define clear project objectives and use technology only when it helps you achieve them – not for the sake of using technology. (For more on this, see the Planning section below.)

Dont assume - ask. Learn about how your organisation and the people you’re working with relate to technology, and factor this into your project design. Don’t assume you know how staff will respond to new mapping software, or what a community will find useful. Ask them – and keep asking all the way through the project.

Recognise that you will have to commit resources to use tech effectively. You may need to invest in hardware at the start, train people in how to use a new tool, or bring in external expertise. You will definitely need to dedicate funds to maintaining and replacing technology, as well as expert support when things go wrong.

Don’t spend time and money on new technology if a good solution already exists. Take the time to research what has worked for similar efforts before choosing any tools, and collaborate with organisations that have had similar experiences.

Think about your project’s potential impacts on people and the environment: Here are some principles.

  • Do no harm: Make a written list of ways in which your project could inadvertently harm people or environments, or help other actors that are causing harm. (For example, could companies benefit from knowing the location of a particular community or a valuable resource?).

  • Let people decide how data about them is collected and used, particularly when working with marginalised communities. The communities themselves should have the final say on the level of risk and exposure they are willing to take. If you are working on any project working with marginalised communities, try asking yourself this list of questions.

  • Use data responsibly: Think about how the data you are collecting could affect people or environments, and how you will manage those risks (see Strategy section.)

  • Collect and present data in a rigorous and expect to be held accountable for the data you present: data can be used to mislead. Be aware of any assumptions that might affect how you collect and analyze data. If you find flaws or gaps, be open about them when sharing or publishing.

More informations at: https://library.theengineroom.org/rainforest-tech/