This research project studied community monitoring as a strategy to combat the deforestation of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. The project was carried out by researchers Jacob Kopas (PhD Columbia University), Tara Slough (NYU), and Johannes Urpelainen (Johns Hopkins University) in collaboration with Rainforest Foundation U.S. (RFUS).
The project involved randomly assigning indigenous communities in Peru to treatment and control groups, with treatment communities participating in a RFUS program where they received smartphones that contained an app that helps monitor deforestation. Communities then used monthly updated satellite data about deforestation occurring within their forests, allowing indigenous leaders to mobilize a response faster than they would have been able to without the technology. Some indigenous groups collectively own and manage territories as large as 15,000 hectare area; policing such large expanses of rain forest without technology or satellite imagery can be challenging if not impossible.
While findings from the study have not yet been released, the researchers suggest that the results thus far show easy uptake of the technology and faster responses to deforestation threats.
This brief outlines RFUS’s decision to partner with the research team, their working relationship, and recommendations for future collaborations. Information within this brief has been provided by interviews with Jacob Kopas and Tom Bewick, RFUS Peru Country Director.
Decisions to Partner with the Research Team
The collaboration between RFUS and the research team formed organically after a discussion that Bewick and Kopas, who have known each other for over fifteen years, had about the advancements in climate change mitigation. During a meeting in New York, Bewick shared promising data on the reduction in deforestation in recent years. Kopas agreed that the data was encouraging, but suggested conducting a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to collect rigorous evidence to support these data’s claims. Bewick agreed, calling the partnership “a perfect match.”
Bewick said that the decision to work with the research team was driven by the goal to move beyond descriptive statistics to causal analysis, in order to advance studies of climate change mitigation. He said that by having RFUS partner with a research team, they would be able to conduct an RCT that worked directly with indigenous leaders to ensure equity and to learn more about the communities of interest.
At key points in the project, members of the research team flew to Peru to collaborate with RFUS. For example, the researchers and RFUS staff worked together on the selection of the study area, the randomization of communities into the program, as well as the design of the survey sent to communities. Additionally, they did extensive field testing of the survey questions because, according to Bewick, “we wanted integrity [of the study] to be most important.”
Working with the Team
When describing the research project, Kopas said it offered an exciting opportunity to connect satellite data and technology with actors on the ground who are on the frontlines of deforestation. While Kopas and the other researchers worked out the details of the RCT, RFUS played an essential role in implementing the intervention and establishing trust on the ground. “The folks at [RFUS] have a very ethical view of how to work with these communities. It’s important to be really respectful of the rights of these communities,” Kopas said. In particular, the project was designed to be well-representative of the interests of everyone involved and to conduct all aspects of the project in consultation with participating communities and with their fully informed consent. This also meant making sure that all actors on the ground understood the value of doing an RCT, despite the fact that this type of study conducts the intervention in only some of the communities involved.
Overall, Kopas explained that the research team primarily set up protocols for randomization and made sure that a well-coordinated RCT was conducted, while RFUS was pivotal in designing and implementing the intervention, establishing relations with indigenous leaders, and setting expectations for what could and could not be achieved. The project did face some unforeseen challenges during implementation; in particular, coordinating access to more-remote communities proved difficult. Regardless, RFUS and the Regional Organization of the People of the Eastern Amazon (ORPIO), a second implementing partner, remained excited about conducting an RCT in an ethical way. “If you have interesting ideas and execute well in collaboration with indigenous peoples, you can have positive results,” Kopas said. “Any benefit from this project is because it was done in a positive way. All the background work making sure everyone is on board—this is the special sauce that makes a project like this work.”
Dissemination of Findings
While the findings are not public while pending the peer review process, both Kopas and Bewick stated that they are promising. Bewick, in particular, suggested that the findings will likely have implications within the context of the study and beyond, as much of climate change policy is currently based on descriptive statistics. Studies like this may generate a shift to climate change policy being based on experiments and causal findings, rather than statistics alone.
While it is still too early to share the findings of the study, Kopas said that the research team was enthusiastic about early results that show a high level of uptake in treatment communities. The response was so positive that communities who were not in the original study have requested the smartphones, app, and satellite data to monitor their own forested areas.
While the partnership was generally successful, both Bewick and Kopas mentioned a few hurdles they faced throughout the project. First, Bewick stated that in order to conduct a study like this, researchers and implementing partners must make an effort to work with other third-party organizations. In this study in particular, the researchers and RFUS relied on a strong connection to and cooperation with ORPIO, the representative organization for indigenous peoples in the part of the Peruvian Amazon where the study took place. This relationship was particularly useful in encouraging communities to cooperate with the study and the survey. The logistics of implementing a monitoring program over a vast, and often remote, area is challenging. For example, some communities required a five-day boat ride through the Peruvian Amazon to be reached for the training, to deliver satellite updates, and for conducting the survey. Without partnering with ORPIO and indigenous leaders, this coordination would have been very challenging, Bewick said. Throughout the project, ORPIO assisted by providing information about the communities and by connecting with local leaders to encourage participation in the survey.
Second, Kopas explained that descriptive and anecdotal evidence coming out of the project suggested possible longer term benefits of the program, and that follow-up studies could be fruitful. He suggested asking anthropologists to go in and study how the norms and cultures of individual communities influenced by the introduction of new technologies and their response to them. On the same note, Kopas added that while conducting a high-quality RCT was the primary focus of this study, if he were to conduct the study again, he might instead focus on areas with the highest current threat to deforestation. The variation in the threat of deforestation allows the researchers to monitor uptake and behavior in a more diverse set of communities. However, to the extent that the policy goal is to reduce deforestation, the intervention may have a larger impact (in terms of area deforested) if more closely targeted to communities facing the most immediate threats.