The Inagural Forest+ Survey

...and Modernizing the Annual Harvest Plan.

Performing a survey in the dense jungle isn't easy: Hacking through brush with machetes, avoiding needle-like hooks and barbs which grab for your clothing and skin, the occasional heavy downpour to test your spirit... and your equipment. Every other step you take is over or under a maze of fallen trees, a fierce battle with biting mosquitos and gnarly spider webs, and muddy, uneven ground. The going is slow... and tough. 

Nor is it easy to design and implement a cutting-edge system that will be put to use in such a trying environment. From the comfort of your development lab, it's hard to predict how people will interact with your product, how the harsh conditions and unknown circumstances will test it's true capabilities, what sort of adaptations will take place as users begin to work around limitations, and whether your solution will add value... or prove too foreign and cumbersome for welcome adoption.

Combine the two and you have a real task ahead of you...

And that's exactly what we did at the end of July, as we took our Forest+ Survey application into the Mayan Biosphere Reserve of Petén, Guatemala for field testing with a community-based forest concession called Custosel (short for Custodios de la Selva; roughly translated - "Keepers of the Jungle").  In addition to testing our app, we brought along solar-powered charging stations via the Renogy Firefly portable solar kit and satellite wireless via the Inmarsat IsatHub. We wanted to bring computing power and connectivity into the hands of forest workers in the remote wilderness. 

Our hypotheses was that our technology would be a huge improvement over the clipboard-and-paper traditional survey method which leaves forest engineers with weeks of data entry after returning from their labor-intensive work in the field. This delays the finalization of the annual operating plan - or POA, "Plan Operativo Anual" -  which is necessary to receive government approval for the harvest license. What's more, the method is prone to error and presents gaps in accuracy, and if any trees or protected monuments are noted incorrectly, workers must return to the forest for adjustments to the survey. All of this comes at a huge expense to the concession.

Additionally, the survey is a key driver in decision-making for the rest of the year. So, the sooner it can be completed, the sooner the concession can finalize the budget, allocate resources and equipment, and actually begin putting people to work. 

Earth Observations witnessed an opportunity to streamline operations and inject supercomputer efficiency into the POA workflow. We hoped not only to make make their lives easier, but also to provide real-time insights that benefit the business, and even the entire supply chain. 

After an initial demonstration at the Custosel headquarters in Melchor, we discussed the GPS boundaries for this year's survey so that the geo-fence could be properly set, and we gave people some time for testing the app and giving feedback. Once you get to the jungle there is limited time for testing. Rising daily at 5:00 am and working until just before sundown, the goal is to complete the survey as soon as possible.

On the morning of the first day, we had a group meeting to discuss how the teams would operate. Their team of "tigres" was told to proceed normally, and our team of engineers - including yours truly - would shadow them while trying to keep up. One of the foresters mentioned that while they were a team of tigers, there was at least one "kitten" in their midst. My work - that of proving our platform, and maintaining my dignity - was cut out for me. 

"Los tigres" move like an orchestrated team of seasoned professionals. Calling out codes to one another in Spanish as they find trees that have commercial potential, or denoting the GPS coordinates of protected "moniticulos" - artificial earthen mounds that are remnants of the ancient Mayan Civilization - or joking in slang when they can't hear one another through the thick and abounding flora. It's a lively operation that moves at it's own organic pace; one which is surprisingly fast and befitting of the moniker that they've given themselves. There are guides with machetes, scouts taking positions and coordinates, and engineers noting the species, diameter, and height quickly while pushing forward across many hectares throughout each grueling day. 

The forest is cut into large parcels and concessions are then granted to individual communities. The communities further divide the land into five-year and one-year operating plans. The goal is to cycle the land sustainably so that areas are then locked from further harvest. As the survey was being performed, we witnessed that certain trees are marked for "futura cosecha" and would not be touched again for another twenty-five or even thirty years. 

The tigers know all of these things instinctively. And we had to see if what we've learned over the past 6 months could catch up to and augment their experience. For this, we would depend on observing closely how they go about their trade, which details are important to them and which are not, what is possible to change and what is not - as they are working against mother nature and father time.

As twilight enveloped the camp, we sat at a communal table, reviewing our progress for the day, providing feedback for one another, and discussing future improvements. We used the satellite wireless hub to send the day's reports back to the home office so that our GIS specialists could begin plotting the trees. The consensus from the forest engineers was that this new approach would be a huge boon to their operations. 

After sharing a simple meal of beans, chicken, and tortillas, we would also share our battle wounds for the day. My legs were covered in bug bites to the point that it looked liked red stripes had been painted on. And I wasn't the only one. The following morning, the leader of the team told me that these marks were a rite of passage... And that now I was A TIGER!

To be accepted into and provide value for a team such as theirs is a humbling feeling and has created a bond between us that will last a lifetime. We are honored to work with and learn from Custosel - an organization that takes pride in keeping the forest healthy and productive, while empowering one another and uplifting the local community.

At Earth Observation, we are excited to employ our technology in the fight against illegal and destructive deforestation... one tree at a time! Please check back soon for our progress. 

The First Tree

... and Sustainable Harvest in Guatemala

In March of this year, Tree Tag went on a very special mission, deep into the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in the Northern department of Petén, Guatemala. Working directly with regional forestry management companies, sustainable harvest experts, and a guitar company from the United States, we were there to enter the very first tree - a beautiful specimen of Caoba; a type of rich mahogany vital to the region - into our Tree Tag Generator application which is a front-end for our digital supply chain and traceability system.

Guatemala has the “gold standard’ when it comes to an existing paper-based traceability system for forest products. Legal community-based concessions are appointed land from which they can obtain licenses for the harvest of forest products in accordance with strict sustainability standards, licensing, and certification. Through the work of national government, NGOs, international oversight, and legislation - such as the Lacey Act in the US and EUTR in the European union - and through the hardwork and dedication of the community-based forestry cooperatives, Guatemala has established working model that the rest of the world can employ. 

In Petén, 25 years of responsible practices within the forest concession system have demonstrated increased growth of individual trees and healthy, productive forests that are being managed with great care. This system has supported ethical businesses which keep the management of natural resources in the hands of local communities and indigenous peoples, while providing stable income and a prosperity that allows them to further develop services and infrastructure in those very same communities. As well, it bolsters long-lasting relationships throughout the supply chain, fostering deeper trust and confidence in the parentage of the raw materials.

After assembling our team and working through logistics from our headquarters in Flores, our caravan traveled for several hours down deeply rutted muddy roads, passing inspection points with armed guards, penetrating deeper and deeper into the government-protected rainforest. At the rustic loggers camps - loggers are known as “Tumbadores” - the thatched roof huts and earthen floor provide the perfect setting for experiencing the incredible biodiversity of the dense forest canopy. Howler monkeys screech overhead, leaf-cutter ants ply their trade, and exotic flora and fauna abound in every direction. After a simple meal of freshly prepared tortillas, black beans, papaya, and strong coffee, we set off into the forest to take place in this very special event. 

To witness the care that goes into harvesting an individual tree will radically shift one’s perspective. The loggers employed great skill to ensure that even neighboring fruit trees - which local animals were dependent on for food- were spared destruction during the felling of the selected tree. They bring down the tree carefully in order to maximize the productive yield of these precious resources. Even still, it was a somber moment for all of us, as the beauty of this tree and its unique place in the forest permeated the immediate surroundings, and a in few moments, it would be harvested.

The rationale - put so eloquently by Spencer Ortiz - a regional legend, a sustainable harvest advocate, and staunch defender of the forest - was that this grand tree was making the sacrifice so that the forest as a whole could be managed effectively and remain productive for generations to come. There is a delicate balance in creating economic opportunities that encourage stakeholders to protect the forest from destructive interests. 

After the whirring and buzzing of the chainsaw come to an end, you can hear the last few metallic clicks as wedges are driven into the tree’s buttresses in order to direct the fall of the tree. All goes quiet for a moment, and then… it crashes majestically to the forest floor, streams of sunlight beaming in through the hole in the forest canopy, feeding the younger saplings. 

The Forest+ Generator now goes to work: Our app works by creating a one-time code - which is based on species, time, date, and physical location - that is be written on the trunk and stump of the tree. This same code will be used to track the tree - and its individual pieces of lumber - as it moves through the supply chain. The result is that customers of Bedell Guitars will be able track their product right back to the very community where the wood originated, right down to the logger that felled the tree, and to the parent tree itself. 

Companies such as Bedell are industry and thought leaders in the shift towards conscious consumption. Increasingly, responsible organizations and individuals such as these want to know where these precious resources come from. Forest+ provides a solution for exactly this purpose. 

Enhancing the value chain with digital traceability allows foreign suppliers and customers in the US / EU to easily adhere to legislation which puts the onus on businesses in validating parentage of their materials. It also makes it difficult to defraud the government with a bribe, a rubber stamp, and a blind eye. We live in an age where it’s no longer acceptable to claim plausible deniability where it concerns the traceability of precious raw materials. 

We are heading back to Guatemala in the next few weeks to witness the milling of these trees as they are refined into timber products. The guitars that will use this tree have yet to be created but trust that we will be proud to share the rest of the story with you as it continues. We will also be there to participate in the operating plan assessment for next year using our Forest+ Survey application.