Supported By:Omidyar

AI or humans? Rainforest seeks partner to police ghost roads

A villager illegally cuts down a tree in a forest in the North Kolaka district of Indonesia's South Sulawesi province November 5, 2010. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad

A villager illegally cuts down a tree in a forest in the North Kolaka district of Indonesia's South Sulawesi province November 5, 2010. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad

What’s the context?

Hidden roads bring commerce and deforestation; now researchers hope AI may slow the destruction

  • Ghost roads threaten Asian rainforest
  • Where roads come, destruction follows
  • Most went unmapped and unseen - until now
  • Hopes grow that AI may speed detection

HONG KONG - Build a road and destroy a forest - that's the finding of researchers who say newly discovered ghost roads pose an unprecedented threat to the world's dwindling rainforests.

But they also found that artificial intelligence (AI) could help map the secret roads - and so head off some of the worst risks that humans pose.

For where the roads come, people follow and, soon enough, mass destruction begins. Trees are felled in their millions, plus people, birds and wildlife flee, as loggers and poachers move into an environment already teetering on the edge.

Cattle crossing an unpaved section of the BR-319 road, whose paving could drive deforestation, in Humaitá, Amazonas state, Brazil, February 27, 2023. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/André Cabette Fábio
Go DeeperIn drought-hit Amazon, road paving fears grow as rivers run dry
A road runs through a tract of burnt Amazon jungle near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, August 14, 2020. Creatures of the Amazon, one of the earth's most biodiverse habitats, face an ever-growing threat as loggers and farms advance further and further into the rainforest. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Go DeeperPledges to save Amazon rainforest threatened by railways and roads
An illegal logger cuts down a tree to be turned into planks for construction in a forest south of Sampit in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province November 14, 2010
Go DeeperIndonesia's rainforest seen at risk from 2024 election handouts

“Road development is often the first fatal step in forest destruction,” Daniel Carillo, a campaign director of San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, told Context.

The extent of the once-secret road network only came to light after researchers spent 7,000 hours scouring millions of hi-res satellite photos to find a maze of unmapped ghost roads winding through Southeast Asia and Melanesia.

Their one hope is that AI might in future help track the extent of deforestation much more quickly, making it easier to shut down illegal operations with speed.

"There's no question AI could be a critical arrow in the quiver of forest conservationists to help map roads and slow forest destruction," said William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Queensland, told Context. 

"Developing nations can’t halt illegal roads, logging, mining and poaching if they don’t know where they’re occurring."

Laurance's team - whose findings were published in Nature magazine in April - said the secret network posed one of the gravest direct threats to the world's tropical forests, already at risk from logging, mining, agriculture and climate change.

"We call them 'ghosts roads' because they're hidden from view and because, as ecologists, the out-of-control forest destruction they often instigate scares the hell out of us," said Laurance.

While planned roads aid trade and help vital resources flow, their unregulated cousins "unleash a Pandora's box of environmental ills and societal challenges", the researchers said in Nature magazine

The 210 study volunteers and researchers checked images of 1.42 million plots of land to better map the forests of Indonesia, Malaysia and New Guinea.

In this tiny part of the world, they discovered nearly a million km of uncharted roads not shown on OpenStreetMap, and 1.16 million km more than can be seen on the Global Roads Inventory Project. #

The ghost roads they found were enough to wrap around the earth 23 to 29 times.

A villager rides a motorcycle on the PT Kallista Alam palm oil plantation in Darul Makmur district in Nagan Raya, in Indonesia's Aceh province December 18, 2011. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

A villager rides a motorcycle on the PT Kallista Alam palm oil plantation in Darul Makmur district in Nagan Raya, in Indonesia's Aceh province December 18, 2011. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

A villager rides a motorcycle on the PT Kallista Alam palm oil plantation in Darul Makmur district in Nagan Raya, in Indonesia's Aceh province December 18, 2011. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

AI helps humans

The researchers said deforestation usually peaks soon after the roads are built, a pattern common to three of the world’s largest continental islands: Borneo, Sumatra and New Guinea.

"When roads get punched into a forest, they fragment the landscape, disrupting important ecosystems and wildlife habitat," said Carillo.

"They suddenly provide access to poachers, loggers, or others looking to exploit that previously inaccessible and intact forest, often disastrously."

The lure of the road is the money to be made.

About 40% of the roads in Borneo, Sumatra and New Guinea cut through palm oil, wood-pulp and rubber tree plantations. The rest run through agricultural lands and intact forests.

Destroying tropical forests also has an outsize effect on climate change as they make up 68% of the world’s carbon stock, a Nature article published in 2019 shows. 

A NASA study showed these forests absorbed more carbon than other forests, but also release more when they are cut down.

Given the unprecedented pace of road building, the team said better monitoring was essential and that AI could be used to better map the changing landscape.

To test how well AI would work, researchers from the team trained three machine-learning models to pick out uncharted roads on satellite images of rural and semi-forested areas in the equatorial Asia-Pacific.

Their AI models were right up to 81% of the time.

Workers load logs onto a truck at a forest owned by state-owned forestry enterprise Perhutani, in Jombang, Indonesia's East Java province June 20, 2012. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

Workers load logs onto a truck at a forest owned by state-owned forestry enterprise Perhutani, in Jombang, Indonesia's East Java province June 20, 2012. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

Workers load logs onto a truck at a forest owned by state-owned forestry enterprise Perhutani, in Jombang, Indonesia's East Java province June 20, 2012. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

While human accuracy tops 90%, manual mapping was laborious.

Human research can take several years to cover just a small area, says Jayden Engert, lead author of the ghost road study.

“We may be mapping accurately based on the imagery we have, but new roads will have been built by the time our data is usable,” said Engert.  “Roads are being built constantly so you need to constantly update your data, and that is almost impossible with manual mapping.”

Laurance said being able to use a program that would allow AI to do automatic snapshots across vast areas would be a game-changer for ecologists.

"We desperately needed AI because we put 7,000 hours into mapping a little tiny scrap of the world,” said Laurance.

“We estimated that if we wanted to map roads across the whole planet, we would need about 640,000 hours, or 73 years for one person.”

Carlos Souza, a researcher at non-profit conservation group Imazon, is already doing AI detection work in the Amazon.

This kind of monitoring, linked with credible law enforcement, is key to stopping the building of new roads, says Laurance, pointing to the success of human-AI efforts in Brazil.

“They found that they only need to fine or jail a handful of offenders, and then the rest falls quickly into line,” he said.

(Reporting by Marianne Bray; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)


Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles


OpenAI and ChatGPT logos are seen in this illustration taken, February 3, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Part of:

AI and jobs: What does it mean for workers’ rights?

As artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT reshape work, here's our collection of stories on what AI means for workers' rights

Updated: Yesterday


Tags

  • Nature
  • Climate Risk
  • AI
  • Climate policy
  • Forests
  • Biodiversity




Get our data & surveillance newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.


Latest on Context