Image courtesy of Peter Houlihan
“We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to make things happen. And we’ve got to make them happen now.”
These are the words of XPRIZE Rainforest Advisory Board member Harrison Ford, giving his remarks on the role of rainforest preservation in fighting climate change, at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, in September 2021. “The earth has irreplaceable ecosystems rich in carbon and biodiversity,” Ford told the world, “by preserving just a small fraction of these wetlands, tropical forests and mangroves, we can protect our wildlife, our air, water, food, jobs and climate.”
Ford’s message of the importance of preserving our rainforest ecosystems was emphasized in November, when the world’s most comprehensive report yet on The Amazon rainforest was published. Presented on the last day of COP26, the report by the newly formed Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) explained that new species are being discovered in the Amazon almost daily, but that clearance and degradation are disrupting and weakening the forest’s ecological balance. Bringing together the work of 200 scientists from around the world, the report found that “there is now irrefutable evidence that parts of the Amazon have reached a tipping point, with megafires, increased temperatures, reductions in rainfall.”
Luciana Gatti at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, who has been observing The Amazon from the air for the past five years, has since told New Scientist that we could have as little as five years before the Amazon turns into a Savannah Desert.
“Experts have warned that the tipping point will arrive when The Amazon is 20-25% deforested, but only 80% remains,” explains XPRIZE Vice President of Biodiversity and Conservation Peter Houlihan, “this shows the urgency of halting deforestation.”
The good news is, this year, for the first time in history, recognition that forest preservation is central to solving the climate crisis took center stage at COP26. A total of 130 countries committed to ending forest loss and degradation by 2030, with Brazil, Ecuador and Canadaamong the countries that signed to halt deforestation.
“There are a lot of things that were talked about at COP26 that have never been discussed on that stage before,” explains Houlihan, pointing specifically to the rainforest’s roles in climate control. “To me, it's a critical moment… because suddenly, a significant number of countries around the world have realized that they can't sit on the sidelines and do nothing.”
However, while the pledges made at COP26 are positive, he’s keen to see funding fall into the right hands. “For the longest period of time, we've been fighting so hard to get any kind of incremental funding to support these types of conservation initiatives,” says Houlihan, “so I think the concern now is ensuring that the new financing that comes from all these governments or philanthropies go to the right people. That means not just staying at the top, but reaching Indigenous people in local communities that have been working to protect their land or have owned the rights to their land forever. Because, around the world, the majority of biodiversity on the planet exists on native and Indigenous lands.”
As Shyla Raghav of Conservation International summarized in the wake of COP26: “Pledges and commitments are important but they’re not enough — they need to translate to impact. We have much work to do.” Conservation International pointed out that Indigenous voices were still not raised loud enough, the private sector needs clearer guidance on what net-zero really means, and the $100 billion pledged by rich countries is just the beginning of the change we need to see.
To galvanize further change, it’s also important to continue to build on our understanding of just how valuable our rainforests are, elaborates Houlihan. Enter XPRIZE Rainforest, a $10M competition to catalyze the new technologies needed for biodiversity assessment in rainforests, from The Amazon to The Congo Basin to beyond.
“XPRIZE Rainforest was really born out of the fires in The Amazon in 2019, and the desperate cry for help to do something about it,” Houlihan explains. “What excites me most about the Prize is that everybody who comes together around this competition is focused on solution-oriented approaches to information gathering and preservation.” If The Amazon is on the precipice of a tipping point, the need to catalog it is more crucial than ever, he adds: “You can't protect something if you don't know what's there and you can't effectively manage protected areas if you don’t know what is in them.”
Already, the competition is working with teams who have innovative new technologies in development. “Our teams have 24 hours to survey as many species as they can in 100 hectares. 100 hectares is about 100 football fields. And then they only have 48 hours beyond that to analyze the data. So the competition is very much focused on rapid autonomous solutions: teams have to deploy their solutions from outside.” The idea is that the solutions are then scalable, able to monitor much larger parts of the rainforest or else dense and remote rainforests that have yet to be extensively studied before.
One of the most novel things about the competition, which is approaching the testing phase, says Houlihan, is the possibilities it will unlock in terms of access. “A lot of what we’re doing is working with authorities at many different levels to actually allow all of these teams from around the world to deploy their drones or work on their remote methods for sequencing DNA in places they might not otherwise be able to access. For all these teams to be able to test their technologies in this way will be groundbreaking.”
Along with the Prize, Houlihan says a recent trip to the center of the Amazon Basin has left him feeling optimistic about the future of our rainforests. “I was in the Amazonas state of Brazil, one of the largest provinces in the world that is largely still protected and that means there are still intact rainforests. To me, that is really promising to see.”