IBM and the Nature Conservancy Partner to Track Deforestation in the Amazon

In May of 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Belém in the Brazilian Amazon to learn from the public and social sectors how the Brazilian government is currently addressing deforestation in rural privately-owned lands in the Amazon. As a Brazilian, deforestation in this region has loomed over the political and public discourse of my home country for as long as I can remember. Fueled by a multitude of social and market forces, Brazil alone has cleared more than 153,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest since the early 1990s. However, after an especially destructive year in 2004 and due in part to new political leadership, deforestation rates in Brazil actually began to fall. For the first time in my life, I felt hopeful that the Brazilian government was working to monitor and curtail this dire problem.

Unfortunately, my optimism was short-lived. In 2013, deforestation increased by 33 percent, reversing part of the progress that had been made over the previous decade. Economic expansion in emerging and developed markets alike has motivated agribusinesses to clear huge areas of the Amazon to meet a growing global demand for commodities like soybeans, beef, and timber. According to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), every 15 minutes, an area of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest larger than 200 football fields is destroyed. Close to 20 percent of the Amazon has been cut down in the past 40 years, and scientists predict another 20 percent of the trees will be lost in the next 20 years.

Economic expansion in emerging and developed markets alike has motivated agribusinesses to clear huge areas of the Amazon to meet a growing global demand for commodities like soybeans, beef, and timber. Photo ©Erik Lopes

In spite of these on-going, devastating losses to this crucial biome, there is some cause for hope. In 2012, the Brazilian government revised its Forest Code, requiring the registration of all private lands in a land registry system called SiCar, which will enable local governments to collect environmental information and assess the state of deforestation on private property in the region. According to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), “The new Forest Code is one the most important advances in environmental management in Brazil in the past 50 years. It is revolutionary because local public authorities will be able to attribute deforestation to individual rural property owners and identify those who are managing their lands in a sustainable fashion.”

Earlier this year, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) partnered with TNC in Pará state, in Northern Brazil to support the capacity of municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon to enforce the revised Forest Code. Through this collaboration, a team of 10 IBM pro bono consultants from across the globe is currently working in Belém, Pará to help local municipalities effectively establish land-ownership records, monitor land use, and prevent illegal deforestation. Principally, the IBM team is enhancing the features of the TNC’s Municipal Environmental Portal (PAM), a web-based portal that has been piloted in a number of Brazilian municipalities to assess land use and compliance with Brazil’s revised Forest Code. The IBM CSC team is working with TNC to enhance the portal’s capabilities and its integration with other government databases and is developing a roadmap for TNC to introduce the portal to municipalities throughout the Amazon River Basin.

A farmer from São Félix do Xingu, a municipality in the state of Pará in the Northern region of Brazil. Photo © Erik Lopes

This project is closely aligned with the Brazilian government’s goal of decentralizing environmental management, as state governments have been largely unsuccessful at monitoring private lands at a local level. By building the capacity of the local municipal governments to perform environmental management, the IBM team will play an important role in ensuring the revised Forest Code’s impact is effectively realized. According to TNC, “The focus should be building the capacity of local municipalities with technologies such as the Municipal Environmental Portal, which will enable local governments to update the state government on a more accurate and regular basis.”

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IBM has embraced the opportunity to support such an important and impactful project, which aligns closely with the company’s corporate objectives.

“This partnership with The Nature Conservancy provides an opportunity for IBM to exert environmental leadership on the ground that will balance the need for economic growth with the need to provide sustainable performance in the environmental space,” said Stanley Litow, the Vice President for Corporate Affairs who oversees the CSC program.

The Amazon rainforest is home to one-third of the planet’s biodiversity and at least one-fifth of its fresh water production. Photo © Rafael Araujo

Mechanisms for monitoring deforestation and implementing preventative measures depend heavily on the effective use of technology. Major investments in tools like PAM and SiCar are building a strong foundation for future initiatives. The partnership between IBM and TNC can serve as a model for other countries across the globe seeking to effectively leverage technology to address deforestation issues. Additionally, further investments that allow these tools to be integrated with other state databases in other states of Brazil will enable their use across the country, ensuring long-term success.

The partnership between IBM, TNC, and the local Brazilian municipalities is also a reminder that, like any complex global challenge, the fight to preserve the Amazon rainforest is not just the sole responsibility of a single government, corporation, or NGO. “We can’t solve these big problems unless we have governments working with business, working with NGOs. It takes all three to be successful,” said Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and co-chairman of the Latin American Conservation Council.

Deforestation of the Amazon has significant environmental implications, not just the for the hundreds of millions of people who inhabit the eight countries containing the 2.7 million square miles of Amazon rainforest, but for everyone in the world. The rainforest plays a key role in regulating the earth’s climate, and is home to one-third of the planet’s biodiversity and at least one-fifth of its fresh water production. As such, it is no surprise that the Amazon rainforest has been deemed “the most critical place for human survival.” The collaboration between IBM and TNC is a small step towards addressing this enormous challenge. With luck, it can inspire more partnerships that leverage the innovative technologies required to achieve large-scale conservation, protecting both the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet for years to come.

Feature photo: A family of farmers from São Félix do Xingu. © Erik Lopes
Rodrigo Soares

Rodrigo Soares

Rodrigo Soares is a Senior Program Manager at PYXERA Global where he works in the program design, management, and monitoring and evaluation of a wide range of complex international volunteer programs. He has managed over 500 international volunteers and more than 100 International Corporate Volunteer (ICV) projects in emerging markets for companies such as IBM, Pfizer, PepsiCo, FedEx, Celanese, John Deere and Dow Corning. He has visited over 25 countries and managed projects in different themes including health, education, tourism development, information technology, marketing, human resources, business plans and organizational development, etc.

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