In Eco Venao, an eco lodge known for surfing and spider monkeys, Nicolas Nickson-Casal guided us through old cattle lands that have been regenerating into forests over the past two decades. A large area of mature secondary forest provided a baseline for what the future could hold for the rest of the land. Other parts of the property reflect a variety of informal planting experiments, fruit trees within forests, firebreaks, fences to prevent grazing, or some combination.
During early restoration, they planted several hectares with a mixture of teak, expecting to thin the valuable hardwood as the forest regrows. But teak exhibits allelopathy; chemicals in their fallen leaves remain in soil and inhibit the growth of other plants around them. Instead of a tropical forest with a few valuable trees that could be extracted, this section of property became a sparse teak savanna. In the past year, Earthshot and Pro Eco Azuero have planted more saplings, starting the process of converting fields to forests.
The team compares manual measurements to the Biome app.
At each of the sites we traveled through the mosaic of forest stands to measure as much variability in forest age, planting regime, and land use history as possible. Within each different forest type we established multiple plots, each 10 meters in diameter, and recorded the diameter, height, and species of every adult tree inside the plot. In each locale, we used two methods for measurement: both the traditional forestry method, and Earthshot's Biome app, which uses computer vision, augmented reality, and machine learning to automate much of the process.
Measuring both ways, we found, were essential for confirming Biome’s accuracy. We also recorded the number of saplings within the plot, and took photos to record ground cover, canopy closure, and vegetation density. Knowing the size and species of trees allows us to estimate their biomass, and consequently, the amount of carbon stored within them. Having measurements from a variety of forest stands of a known age and history enables us to make predictions about how much carbon will be sequestered in the future if we planted a similar stand today.
Measuring individual trees obviously cannot be done from a desk a continent away, though we could have asked local people to take these measurements, which we will do as we expand and scale. But physically doing a task is essential when faced with uncertainty. Our inventory methodology specifies 10 meter plots, but because much of the regeneration plots are very sparse and savanna-like, we discovered they may not be large enough. At the same time, the mature forest sections are quite dense and so the two use cases may require different protocols. In the Biome app, we tested several methods of measuring height, one that required the phone to be kept at a stable height and position and another where the user touches the tree and then moves back to measure the distance. Either works fine in a park, but neither are suitable in a treacherous forest floor full of down limbs, spiny trees, and loose rock. Having technologists do the measurements enabled us to viscerally understand the inherent difficulties of the work, have empathy with those who will use our methods and technologies, and create designs and methods that are tolerant of error.
But more, the embodied experience of the forest and landscape we are all working to restore creates a connection and sense of place that is otherwise impossible to replicate. This translates into better intuitions about the system and the problems it faces. One morning, as we walked to measure trees, we watched as a troop of spider monkeys crossed the trail ahead of us. Seeing these beings watching us, waiting for us to pass, and believing that our actions there can and will help them deepens our sense of purpose in a way nothing else can.