A Technological Tango: WIPO GREEN helps Mapping Misiones’ Forests from Space

January 17, 2024

Misiones, with its sprawling forests, has long been the heartbeat of Argentina’s forestry industry. Carlos Scarnichia, General Manager of a forestry firm that focuses on design, production and marketing of remanufactured wood products, sees the potential of these lands, not only for the richness of the wood, but also for its role in preserving nature.

Like any businessman, Carlos has faced challenges due to concerns about forest inventory: was he over-harvesting? Was he underutilizing his resources? Traditional methods, such as sampling – a statistical analysis where researchers analyze a set number of observations from a bigger group – often gave him numbers that felt either exaggerated or underwhelming.

“It wasn’t just about business”, said Carlos, who knows the environmental implications of misjudging his resources. “Over-harvesting could mean long-term damage to the land, and underutilizing might suggest that more forest area could be safely harvested, thus positively affecting the local economy”, he noted. His concerns pivoted around three primary metrics: density, height, and diameter of the plantation. Even a slight misjudgment in these could alter the result, leading to environmental and economic consequences.

Misiones forest in Latin America. (Image: Igor Alexander/E+/Getty Images)

Forests are disappearing globally

Misiones is part of the Atlantic Forest, a biodiverse ecoregion that stretches along the Atlantic coast of South America, covering parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The forest is home to 7% of the world’s plant species and 5% of vertebrate species, making it one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world. And Misiones is the largest remaining tract of the interior Atlantic Forest. Conservation and sustainable use of the forest are essential for its biodiversity, its people, and indeed the planet.

This is not just a local issue. Globally, nearly 10 million hectares of the world’s forests are lost every year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that around 420 million hectares of forest were lost between 1990 and 2020. In an effort to restore forests and other natural habitats around the world, the United Nations last year launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Countries, businesses and other organizations have, amongst other items, promised action towards preventing, halting and reversing deforestation worldwide. Earlier, at the 26th UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, a coalition of 144 countries, which account for more than 90% of the world’s forests, also stated their commitment to reversing forest loss by 2030. These commitments need to translate to action.

WIPO GREEN LAC project makes a connection

After detailing this challenge, the on-ground consultant team of WIPO GREEN Latin America Project (LAC) – a private company called b2b agri – sprang into action with the support of Funds-In-Trust Japan IP Global. Through the coordination of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, and the National Institute of Industrial Property, Carlos was led to the “Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales” (CONAE), Argentina’s national space agency. This initiated a sequence of events that could tie forestry and space technology in a bond of scientific collaboration.

CONAE’s “Satélite Argentino de Observación Con Microondas 1” (SAOCOM 1) satellites were launched into space in 2018 and 2020, equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) antennas which allow information on forest density to be detected in any weather condition. Moreover, the satellite successfully penetrates through vegetation and the soil, producing vital moisture maps which are crucial for agriculture. These maps also play an important role in detecting changes on the Earth’s surface. The technology is poised to enhance the mapping and assessment of forest density in the region in the future.

A collaboration is born

Carlos’s initial meeting with Álvaro Soldano, Deputy Manager of Applications and Products at CONAE, set the stage for collaboration. After extensive technical discussions, they devised a plan to harness the SAR technology to gauge forest density, contrasting satellite-obtained data with on-ground observations for calibration and validation.

One might wonder, why would a space agency be interested in a local forestry challenge? But for CONAE, this was a chance to help local industries thrive through space technology aligned with their vision. “By the end of our discussion, a roadmap seemed visible. If they can harness the SAOCOM 1 satellites’ power to measure plant density and validate it against field observations, it could be a great boost for the entire Argentine forestry sector, which may have spatial and temporal information on the evolution of forest density,” says Álvaro.

Carlos is more than just a customer. He is an active collaborator, providing the CONAE team with ground-based data to correlate the accuracy of satellite predictions. His hands-on approach and deep knowledge of the forests have proven invaluable. Not only can Carlos make informed decisions about his land, but the entire Argentine forestry sector could have a powerful tool at its disposal.

Both parties know that they are on the verge of something big. Not just a business collaboration, but a move that could change the forestry sector in Argentina. An agreement between the parties is close to being formalized. The goal is to accumulate data, identify emerging patterns, and recognize trends. The satellite-driven model could also enhance the accuracy of data on forest density.

Image: Alexmumu/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The future of space technology for forests

The collaboration between Carlos and CONAE is not just a local success story. It may have a bearing on the way forests are managed worldwide. By providing a precise and cost-effective method for forest inventory, the Misiones model could help forest managers to make more informed decisions about harvesting, replanting, and conservation. This can lead to improved forest productivity, while also increasing the contribution of the forestry industry to sustainable development.

As space technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more innovative and effective applications emerge. For example, researchers are developing ways to use satellite data to measure forest biomass, which can help us to better understand the carbon storage potential of forests and their value on potential carbon credit markets.