Extreme citizen science in the Congo Basin | Jerome Lewis | TEDxUCL

Extreme citizen science in the Congo Basin | Jerome Lewis | TEDxUCL


Translator: Katarina Ericson
Reviewer: Denise RQ Well, good evening and thank you
for being here. I’m going to talk about
this collaborative project, extreme citizen science which is a sort of odd thing
which came inadvertently out of my experience of working
with hunter-gatherers in Congo. But really it’s a story not about the hunter-gatherers
or about us particularly, but about listening to each other,
and about sharing perspectives, and about the importance of being willing to spend the time necessary
for that to happen if we really want to start
to develop interesting solutions to problems which seem intractable. This is a large forest which you will see
is probably looking very empty of people, but underneath, inside that forest,
are large numbers of people. Those people live in small camps, dispersed quite widespread
across the forest, and I spent the past 18 years or so
working with them, learning their language,
sharing their lives, with my wife Ingrid and my son Lando
for three years in the early 90s. And in that process, we became aware of
a very different way of living, and as anthropologists, we used
a method called participant observation, which means that you
really learn the language, you spend time really getting into
the lives of the people you’re living with so that you understand
what really matters to them. And I had fairly standard
interests at that time, which were in ritual,
which were in dance and music, things that anthropologists
often enjoy getting their teeth into. But at the same time as we were doing
all that, we started to learn that there were quite serious other issues
going on in this forest, and those issues… – I’m sorry but the slides are
somehow not coming in my order – were really ones that these young people
will face as they’re growing up. This is a society
which is based on sharing, and sharing results in some
very interesting consequences if you apply it rigorously. They have politically
egalitarian social forms, nobody has more than other people. If I have more than I initially need, I can immediately have that
demanded from me by somebody who hasn’t got that thing. So in a sense, in these societies,
goods are free. You don’t have to pay for the things
you don’t have, you have to ask for them. This sharing ethos is really
very dominant in these groups, and now, unfortunately,
surprisingly rare in the world, though of course, we have all
evolved as hunter-gatherers; hunter-gathering represents
probably, the most stable, enduring, and sustainable life-style
of any human groups anywhere in the world. But this way of life is being challenged
very radically by notions of development, and the importance
of monetizing resources that otherwise are sitting
quietly in nature. What happened in the Congo
is that these huge forests, something like the size of Belgium, were under pressure
from international organizations like the World Bank
and other international creditors. The government was told
they must develop it, so they start to generate an income to repay these huge debts
that they have taken. So the idea was by creating concessions: you could invite outsiders to bid
for the rights to exploit those resources. In these cases it’s mostly trees, though mines and minerals are now
becoming the really big issue, the big resources that people want
to extract from these areas. But as you can see, the whole forest
has been carved up and rented out to various international companies, without any regard
for the local hunter-gatherers. And these outsiders, the first thing they need to do of course
is get access to these resources. And so suddenly, areas which
the hunter-gatherers controlled, because you wouldn’t be able
to go there, unless they took you, were accessible to anybody
who could get into a car. The resources that people have been mainly
extracting up until now are these trees, and in particular the African mahogany,
which is also called Sapele. And it’s not clear-cut logging
as you get in some parts of the world, this is very selective logging,
it’s about 1.5 trees per hectare. So it doesn’t have a big impact
on the biomass of the forest but it has a substantial impact
on the biodiversity of the forest. It also, of course, generates huge income, and areas of forest like this,
in extraordinarily short amounts of time, become areas of forest like this, literally, five or six years. Thousands of people are suddenly living
in an area of huge biodiversity, and they have needs, they have
lots of different food that they need, money, and social life,
and all sorts of other things that people living in groups require. Now this forest is full of Tsetse flies,
so cattle don’t survive, but people of course use the protein
around them which is the bushmeat, the wild animals that roam in the forest. So suddenly, with this huge
demand for bushmeat, you have commercial hunters
moving out, using those roads, and accessing lots
of different parts of the forest. Maybe if it was just consumed locally,
it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but of course these things
are exported nationally along the same roads
that allow you into the forest, connect up to other road networks,
and even internationally. You can buy bushmeat,
probably from this forest, in London here, as well as in America,
in New York, and in Paris. This attracts, of course,
the attention of conservationists, and on your left here, you can see
about 3000 wire traps which were collected in just two weeks
of patrols around a small area of forest. This really is having a serious impact
on the animals living in this forest. One of the key solutions
for the conservationists is to train up these paramilitary
units called ecoguards who move round the forest looking for
poaching and poachers’ activities. And one of the problems that they face is that actually, the really serious poaching
is organized by national elites, and they can’t control them
without fearing reprisals, risking reprisals, quite serious ones. So, because they want to do their job and they are concerned
about addressing poaching, they tend to go for softer targets, very often the local hunter-gatherers
and local farming people. The local people, the forest people,
feel very persecuted by this, and they feel very resentful
that the really big poachers who are causing very serious problems
are not being tackled by this process. In about 2005, the logging company who dominated
most of the area I did my research in, decided to go for
a Forest Stewardship Council certificate. Now this certificate requires a whole set
of environmental calculations to be done about what is a sustainable
harvest, and so on, but also a whole set of social activities
to ensure that it’s socially durable, that the people who also depend on
this same forest can continue to live and use the forest resources
in the way they have previously. The forester is a technician, so
calculating the sustainable harvest, how to narrow the roads and so on, was something they were
very capable and able to do. But they weren’t anthropologists, and they didn’t know how to deal
with the issues around people, so they asked me to help them. So I went to see my friends and I said,
well, what do you think about logging? Is logging good? They said: “Look, we’ve got
a big forest, it’s full of resources, we share things, we don’t mind sharing
some of our trees with them. But there are some things that annoy us. We don’t like it when their bulldozers
drive over our tombs, when they spoil the springs that come up
in the forest where we get good water. We’re not happy when they cut down
our medicinal trees, or our sacred trees, and one thing that
we really are unhappy about is when they cut down
our caterpillar trees.” These caterpillar trees give
abundant amounts of caterpillars, just at the time when the animals
are dispersing in the forest at the beginning of the rainy season. They grow on the number one
commercial species that the loggers like to take out,
the Sapele trees, and so this posed a problem. When I reported this back
to the logging company, they were very distressed,
they thought they would have to withdraw their main commercial species
from production if they wanted this green certificate. I assured them it wasn’t every tree,
just key trees that go above the canopy that attract the butterflies that lay
the eggs that the people want to keep, because they’re the ones
that they regularly go to. So we decided we’d have
to map it, and to do that, they had to first identify who was
responsible for which parts of forest. We began by noting down which clans were
responsible for which areas of forest. With that, they were able
to then go and talk to people, ask them to take them round the forest,
and using GPSs they began to mark out and to geotag the different trees
that people wanted protected. And this process was very laborious,
it took a lot of time, it required large teams of people, and there are huge amounts of human error that enter into these kinds
of transcription processes. It was unsatisfactory, and I wondered,
why don’t the local people do it? It’s a huge area,
half the size of Belgium. We need scalable
and sustainable solutions. I imagined using icons to allow people
to collect the data themselves; and we found a UK software company
willing to make it into software. They turned it into
this piece of software, which we loaded onto a hand-held computer
with a GPS unit on top. We started to show it to people, and very quickly,
within 15 minutes actually, most people can learn
how to use it quite effectively. The only people who had slight problems
were people with eyesight issues, some of the elder people. So what would happen is,
we’d get combinations with the old people
telling the younger people where to note the particular resources,
and the younger people learning, of course, in the process,
where those resources were. And so very soon, we started to replace
the GPS, on the right there, with these hand-held computers, and people started to make maps. If, for instance, you were a lady
who wanted to protect a sacred tree, you’d start on screen one,
on the left here, and you’d pick, at the bottom,
this icon with people, which represents
cultural and religious resources. That would take you to screen two, where you would have a choice
of another set of icons, and this one at the bottom
is one of the forest spirits, so you would press on the forest spirit, and that would take you to a third screen, where you have a choice
of marking a sacred path, which are always marked
with these palm fronds, or a sacred tree. And you press the sacred tree,
the machine goes “Beep!” and you know that you’ve recorded
that particular resource. So very quickly – maybe we need
to dim the lights slightly – maps like this would start to be made
by the local hunter-gatherers and would show the particular areas
where they had resources. The loggers could then turn
these maps into GI Arc view, which is the geographic information
system software that they use for planning and managing
all their cutting schedules, and so protect and remove
from their cutting schedules any resources that the local people
wanted protected. Even in areas of forest
as heavily used as this, they were actually able to protect
and remove from the cutting schedule all the resources
that local people wanted protected, and the reason was that they had
a 15% margin of flexibility in planning their cutting schedules. So the system suddenly allowed
people like this, who prefer to stay in the forest,
in their forest camps and forest places, an ability to speak in places like this, but not by being there,
but by sending their maps there. They love the fact that the maps now go
into these intimidating environments, and the loggers love the maps because
they can very easily integrate them back into their GIS systems that they use
for managing their exploitation, and the communication
suddenly flows in a very easy way, in a way that it never did before. Once agreed upon, the communities
go back, and they mark the cemeteries, or the trees that they want protected. And now every logging company
in the Congo basin that wants to go for this
Forest Stewardship Council label, uses this system. With varying quality, I must say. And so this now continues on as we speak, wherever there are new places
they’re going to cut. But of course, trees are important
for all the forest communities and particularly for those
who are the poorest ones because those are the resources
they can collect for free. In southeast Cameroon,
the Baka communities there have a great problem with illegal logging. What happens here is that artisan cutters
will come into the forest, cut down caterpillar trees like this one, saw it on site and then
transport it out of the forest. So we developed a new set of software
which tried to deal with that. Here we have a stump, and because the size
of the stump depends on legality, you can’t cut trees that are too small, we had sets of strings
of different lengths which people could use then
to give a rough sense of the size of the stump or log
that they found in the forest. We would go round to different communities
showing them the icons, not telling them what they meant, so they told us what the icons meant, As people stumbled
and didn’t recognize them, we would adapt them and change them, and then we would test in another village. But of course, after having gone
through what the icons meant, we would take them into the forest, and we would have a group of women
on one side, and a group of men, and we would check that the icons
responded to what they wanted to map, and worked for the things
that they felt were important. There were huge amounts
of illegal and wasteful logging going on in their local areas. But very soon,
and on return to the village, the software developer
would refashion the software according to the feedback
we got from the village, so when we went to the next community
we could test it again. After three communities, in fact,
we managed to stabilize the software, and have all the issues that people
wanted to address addressed. And this is the one which is to do with
illegal logging number six, FLEGT here. Notice these caterpillar tracks,
the bulldozer tracks, which show it’s an industrial logger as opposed to the planks
on the bottom here, which show that it’s an artisanal logger who’s going to be cutting
with his chainsaw. This has implications for the sorts
of maps that we make. So here for instance, you can see that
someone’s been cutting undersized logs, but we see planks
next to caterpillar tracks, so we don’t know if it’s an industrial
logger or a local person. These are the sorts of issues which the Ministry of Forestry
officials go and check. This community, for instance,
very wide use of forest, lots of resources that they’re exploiting, but when we remove the layers
we can show very clearly which of the resources need to be checked
by the government’s officials. People aren’t making mistakes,
they’re recognizing the different sizes. This is a community forest, which is normally meant to be managed
for the benefit of the community, but the management group
in charge of this community forest are clearly not doing that, and they’re allowing
artisanal loggers to come in and cut all sorts of undersized trees, which will have negative consequences
for people’s access to resources. Here’s a couple of communities, who have a very wide use of resources
even in this logging concession which is colored in pink here. But what we can see is that the loggers
are also exploiting outside the limits of their logging concession,
which is of course a serious offense. The Congolese hunter-gatherers
were so impressed by the efficiency of the maps to make changes in the way
the loggers were working, so they asked us to develop
some anti-poaching software, so that we could start to address
the problem caused by poachers. Together with them, we elaborated
a set of new icons for that, and just in April,
I’ve just been in Congo testing. Now what we do is we can use smartphones because they’re sufficiently
robust and efficient to replace those rather clunky
hand-held computers we had previously. To our great pleasure and surprise,
they worked well under the forest canopy, the GPS is quick-reacting, and the software, while having
some changes which we need to make, was largely successful. We’re working with some Italians
called X-tribe who develop games, and we’re developing geographic games
where we try to train people to understand two-dimensional
representations of landscape. So here, we have some satellite imagery,
and we’re trying to understand what degree of zoom
people find most easy to work with, so that as we develop mapping applications
for the hunter-gatherers, they’ll be able to understand them easily. We’re also looking at alternative forms
of energy generation. Solar panels don’t work well
in the forest because of the canopy, so these heat-charging pots are
very efficient in this particular context. So we’re looking for solutions that are appropriate to the particular
places where we’re working. Now, this is all part of a group actually, which is made up of people
from all over the world, we are from all sorts of disciplines, we’ve mentioned anthropology,
computer science, but there’s also geography, there are
artists, foresters, hunter-gatherers, and it’s actually the combination
of all these different knowledges which is what allows us to come
to appropriate solutions. I think that actually
this is a really important point which I’ve learned
from the hunter-gatherers, the importance of sharing. Of being willing to share knowledge,
to share skills, to share perspectives, and it’s only through that sharing
I think we’ll really have a chance of coming up with the solutions
that we require to address some of the very serious problems that humanity is going to have
to confront in the next century. And I think that ExCites is just
one small way that we’re experimenting with different ways
of creating those collaborations, which will provide us
with the opportunities of finding solutions to those problems. Thank you. (Applause)

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