Sunday, 28 December 2008

Eye in sky to deter illegal loggers

Personal note: Whilst it destroys the forests of Indonesia, Malaysia is increasingly keen to save its own. China has been doing much the same things for years.

New Straits Times Online


Eye in sky to deter illegal loggers

SIX hours. That is all the time it takes to detect illegal logging in Peninsular Malaysia, thanks to the Forestry Department’s eye in the sky. Called the ‘Forest Monitoring Using Remote Sensing’ system, it was jointly developed with the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency. Agency director-general Datuk Darus Ahmad and Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia deputy director-general Datuk Razani Ujang talk to SONIA RAMACHANDRAN about the system.

Datuk Darus Ahmad says the satellite images are also used to build a national forest inventory.

Datuk Razani Ujang says the Forestry Department will verifies whether what is on what is seen on the satellite images and on the ground is the same.

Q: Whose idea was the system?

A: The satellite-based computerised system was mooted by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency and the Forestry Department and it started on the instructions of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who chaired the 20th National Forest Council meeting in September 2006.

Q: When was it completed?

A: It was completed in August this year and launched in October. The agency manages the system which is used by the department.

Q: What does the system do?

A: It monitors both licensed concession areas to detect compliance with regulations as well as high potential areas for illegal land clearing.

By identifying illegal land clearing, we can detect forest fires and help in haze prevention.

The images are also used to build a national forest inventory of the country's total area of forest cover.

This can be used to estimate the timber volume from the forests.

Q: Why do we need an inventory?

A: The inventory contributes to the national effort for forest and environmental sustainability.

There is always criticism that our forests are diminishing.

Q: How does it work?

A: We receive the data from the French Spot (Satellite Pour l'Observation de la Terre earth-observing satellites) through our ground receiving centre in Temerloh and it is processed within six hours.

The data is then placed in our database which is linked to the department.

To access any information, the department gets on to the Internet and calls up the specific page to check if logging carried out in that area is legal. The department will also go down to the field to check.

Q: What is considered illegal logging?

A: Logging outside the concession area as well as in protected areas such as riverbanks, areas above 1,000m and slopes of more that 40 degrees gradient. Also illegal is the building of logging tracks outside the logging concession area as well as logging of prohibited trees.

Q: How often are the images taken?

A: For licensed logging areas as well as sensitive areas, we take the images once a week.

Sensitive areas are those with high potential for forest clearing and the Spot satellite, which has a 2.3m resolution which can detect individual trees, passes over the same spot once a week.

For less sensitive areas, which consist of normal forest cover, the images are taken monthly.

Q: Does the system cover the whole country?

A: Currently the system is only for Peninsular Malaysia because we are working with the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia. We can always extend it to Sabah and Sarawak.

Q: How much did the system cost?

A: Only RM120,000. The system was built using existing resources and internal expertise.

Q: Can the images be used as evidence in court?

A: Satellite images have been used to prosecute land owners for open burning so this has potential to be used as evidence in court.

That was a manual system where the image has to be interpreted manually.

This system has all the relevant data incorporated into it, including the template for licensed land boundaries, so it is immediately known that an offence is being committed.

Q: What is the difference between this system and the airborne hyperspectral imaging kit that has a sensor hooked to a computer and global positioning system device?

A: That is an airborne system. Our satellite system is more reliable and cheaper as we don't need an aircraft to operate it.

Our system will also have more frequent images and cover a wider area and it is linked online to the Forestry Department.

Q: What happens when you receive the images?

A: The satellite images are acquired by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency and processed.

When the end product is obtained, it will be sent to us and we will access it online. We will then verify the images.

We have a Geographic Information Section (GIS) which will produce hard copies of the images.

Verification can also be done by the state and district offices.

Then, we have to verify the images on the ground. This can be done by state, district or headquarters officers.

The results of this ground check will then be passed on to the enforcement unit.

Q: Why can't action be taken during the ground check? Why does the information have to be passed to the enforcement unit?

A: We have an enforcement unit at the headquarters and several at state forest departments.

By law, every officer posted to a state has to be gazetted in that state.

Only gazetted officers have the locus standi to carry out enforcement in the respective states.

There are plans to amend the National Forestry Act 1984 where federal enforcement officers will be gazetted to be able to carry out enforcement in the states.

Q: How long will everything take?

A: When the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency receives the satellite images, it is in a raw form. The images can be full of distortions like lines, blurring or even cloud cover.

They have to be cleaned and aligned to the scales and coordinates.

The GIS unit will verify the data within two hours as it has to compare the images with our most current base map because the template used could be outdated due to changes in land use and new issuances of licences.

The verification part is to see if there is abuse. We have to ascertain whether what is on the imagery and on the ground is the same.

Our target is to complete everything within 24 hours.

Q: Do you have enough staff for all this?

A: We need dedicated officers to do the verification work and we need to employ them. At the moment, we have officers from different sections helping out.

Q: Can the images be used as evidence in court?

A: At present, the satellite images are not used to prosecute offenders. Only field evidence is used.

However, it has potential to be used as we have included it as an amendment to the National Forestry Act to be used as evidence.