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Trees in the big city

Tech to the rescue: how apps and recycled smartphones are helping fight deforestation

With apps and recycled smartphones, a growing army of canopy warriors are helping in the war against deforestation

December 20, 2019 05:11 pm | Updated 05:11 pm IST

Topher White, the brain behind Rainforest Connection’s Guardian model

Topher White, the brain behind Rainforest Connection’s Guardian model

Climate change is real, as is deforestation. Right through 2019, conversations around pressing ecological concerns have taken centrestage. “Everybody is waking up!” says Marie-Noëlle Keijzer, co-founder of Belgium-based, WeForest, that focusses on restoring forests along with local communities in the Amazon and, more recently, Meghalaya’s Khasi Hills. Fortunately, this time around, the technology brought in to address environmental concerns – from wirelessly connected sensors in forests to handy mobile applications to track your neighbourhood trees – is seeing a growing interest among #TreeChampions. As we enter another decade, here is how you can join in.

CSR activities at WeForest

While giving your home its annual makeover, how about a digital clean-up too? Your old smartphones could be used to monitor illegal logging and other destructive activities in forests. San Francisco-based non-profit tech startup, Rainforest Connection made headlines for their Guardian model earlier this year. Recycled smartphones are transformed into autonomous, solar-powered listening devices that can pinpoint signs of deforestation and animal poaching at great distances. These biomonitoring devices are mounted on trees in the Brazilian rainforest, to pick up amongst other noises, that of an active chainsaw. A close partner of the organisation, WeForest is looking at implementing this model to monitor wildlife sounds and to replace camera traps. “Cameras take blurry pictures of the animals, because it's usually night time; we can use the sounds of these animals instead,” says Keijzer. The project aims at restoring wildlife corridors in this area. In India, their project is in Meghalaya’s Khasi Hills. Kickstarted by the women of the indigenous Khasi tribe, it deals with conserving the forest cover to prevent large scale erosion and loss of biodiversity after torrential rains. Keijzer says they also engage corporates with environmentally sound practices. To know more about adopting a forest as a company’s CSR activity, visit Retailers and individuals can donate phones on

Adopt a tree at Season Watch

Fostering a tree is a great addition to whatever self-improvement list you may have for the decade ahead. The Bengaluru-based environmental programme, Season Watch, launched this app back in 2016 to encourage residents to adopt one or more trees and record their phenology (the study of how seasonal changes affect plant life) on a weekly basis. With over 1,000 downloads till date, people record observations that range from whether the leaves on their neighbourhood trees are dried up or not, whether the fruits have ripened yet or if insects and birds have checked in. Programme manager Geetha Ramaswami says such a project was long due, owing to the growing disconnect between people and their immediate surroundings. “Opportunities to head out in green spaces and interact with plants, trees and animals, are less. More so among children,” says Ramaswami who studies the effect of seasons on tree phenology. Take for example, the Indian Labernum’s blooming period, which makes it synonymous with the Kerala festival, Vishu. Once in abundance in April, today the golden yellow blooms are seen during other months and often must be purchased. Ramaswami says the peak flowering time may have shifted, and this was noted “thanks to the observations by the volunteers”. The delayed onset of the flowering season is now being studied scientifically. The app is available for free download on Google Play, and there are others like iTrees and Leafsnap to help identify trees.

An ashwath katte

An ashwath katte

Find addas for Everyday City Lab

This initiative actively engages citizens to study urban sacred trees in Bengaluru. A brainchild of Everyday City Lab, the project is aimed at understanding how ashwath kattes (tree temples) are not just religious zones, but also hubs of social and cultural activity. “For those of us living in cities, we only see it as a roadside sign or landmark. But there’s an ashwath katte near a police station in Bengaluru, frequented by retired policemen, and many are popular among vendors, auto drivers, etc,” says Kiran Keswani, co-founder, who is analysing a possible link between such spaces and urban encroachment. She explains that the stronger the neighbourhood's connect with such a spot, lesser the chances of private developers or the government encroaching on them.

Citizen volunteers are expected to document a random sampling of 20 of the most frequented tree spaces, upload photographs, a link to its location, along with a brief description based on prolonged interactions with visitors. Everyday City Labs recently came out with a publication The Sacred and the Public. For a copy of the book and to volunteer, write to

Biomitech’s robotic trees

Biomitech’s robotic trees

Robotic trees at Biomitech

Like humans, trees too have robotic counterparts. Mexican company Biomitech recently launched BioUrban Robotic Trees that replicate the air filtering and purification system of a natural tree. The project started off from a mentorship programme extended to young college scientists, and the robotic versions can be placed where trees cannot be planted. Starting from a retail price point of around $50,000, the system filters gases and particulate matter from polluted air and feeds the micro-algae in the system —replicating photosynthesis. “BioUrban works within -15 to 45 degrees Celsius and helps in preventing sickness due to air pollutants such as NOX, CO, PM 2.5 and others,” says Alejandro Roldan, sales manager. The robotic trees are shipped to India as well.

On similar lines, UK-based tech company Dendra has AI-charged drones to plant trees – the plan is 500 billion trees by 2060. The areas for restoration are first identified through satellite images. Next the drone, fitted with seed pods, shoots them into the soil. Once penetrated, these pods are activated by water. Details:

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