Five ways that tech can help us protect natural resources

July 2, 2020

By Matt Wilson

The world’s forests, wetlands, rivers, oceans, terrestrial wildlife, marine species and other natural resources are buckling under the pressure of human demands and the effects of climate change. When left unchecked or poorly managed, these threats can critically undermine the benefits, or ecosystem services, that our natural resources generate and on which our own survival depends.

Here, digital technology is helping to make a difference in the way governments, communities and businesses lead natural resource management (NRM). Digital solutions, when developed and applied in a customisable and scalable way, can enhance the quality and efficiency of data collection, empower local and global communities to be engaged in conservation efforts, and aid real-time decision making. This is based on the new landscaping research found in our ‘Digital Dividends in Natural Resource Management’ report.

The use of tools such as mobile devices, satellites, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) in NRM is still nascent. But over the last decade, a growing body of evidence has emerged showing how these technologies can bring incremental, and sometimes transformational, improvements to the way organisations fight climate change, reduce biodiversity loss and optimise nature’s contribution to resilient livelihoods.

The fight to protect ecosystems

Healthy ecosystems provide food, medicine and timber, regulate our climate, improve our water and air quality, and protect us from natural hazards.  They are also critical to our livelihoods, particularly in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). Close to 1.6 billion people – over 25 per cent of the world’s population – rely on forest resources for their livelihoods, 3 billion livelihoods depend on marine and coastal biodiversity, and 150 million people living in poverty count wildlife as a valuable livelihood asset.

In addition to undermining most international environmental goals, current trends in biodiversity and ecosystem loss threaten 80 percent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ targets related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land. It is critical that we protect these fragile and constantly changing systems, both for the sustainable development of cities and for the future of the planet.

Our report includes numerous case studies of NRM projects successfully deploying digital technology, including several that are supported or led by GSMA members.

Collecting real-time data on wildlife

The Connected Conservation project, a joint initiative from Cisco and Dimension Data, has found an innovative way to reduce poaching activities in African game reserves through the use sensors and networked devices, machine learning and other digital technologies. Rather than monitoring wildlife, the solution focuses on tracking the movement of people – proactively stopping them from entering parks illegally, and triggering real-time alerts to rangers’ mobile devices when incursions take place.

When the Connected Conservation solution was first piloted in a South African nature reserve in 2016, at least one rhino was being lost to poaching every week. The solution dramatically reduced this risk, dropping poaching in the reserve by 96% in its first year. And, in 2017 and 2018, there were no rhino killings.

Following the success of the pilot programme, the project is being expanded into other parks in Africa, including Mozambique, Zambia and Kenya.

Promoting sustainable fishing

The mFish initiative in Indonesia is a public-private partnership that aims to make fishing more sustainable and support the livelihoods of fishers and fishing communities. The mobile app, developed by mobile operator XL Axiata, uses real-time data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide information about the weather, tides, wind direction and speed, a vessel’s position at sea, the location of fish, and maps of the sea’s surface. To increase the sustainability of local fishing activities, the app can also be used to collect and analyse catch data, monitor illegal fishing and trace seafood along supply chains.

In 2018, XL Axiata build on mFish by releasing a new version of the app (called Laut Nusantara) that includes educational features, such as information about coral reefs, conservation of marine biota and the threat of pollution.

Using mobile Big Data to fight air pollution

Telefónica Brazil is working with the municipalities of São Paulo to harness mobile network data and combat the adverse health effects of air pollution. Machine learning algorithms developed by Telefónica combine anonymised data from the mobile network with data from weather, traffic and pollution sensors, to help monitor and predict pollution levels over the entire city. The mobile data used in the algorithms can include both active events (such as a voice call or SMS) and passive events (such as devices synchronising with cell towers). The solution is able to accurately predict pollution levels 24 to 48 hours in advance, and enables local authorities to take preventative steps if emissions are expected to endanger human health.

This approach is delivering insights more cost-effectively than direct observation of pollution levels, and on a regular, more dynamic basis than is possible with more traditional data collection methods. The project has also shown that employing mobile big data can significantly reduce costs, increase accuracy and provide valuable information for decision makers about how to define urban transport policies or assess pollution levels.

Livestreaming the rainforest

One of our in-depth case studies, the ‘Rainforest Guardians’ project, uses upcycled mobile devices to livestream the sound of the Philippines rainforest and upload it to the cloud, where AI by tech giant Huawei helps to cut through the cacophony of noise to detect and report the sound of illegal logging or animal poaching.

The project, led by Huawei’s TECH4ALL Programme, Smart Communications and non-profit Rainforest Connection (RFCx), has already had a positive impact on the country’s forest cover, supported law enforcement, and complemented existing monitoring systems. The AI model is now being used in ten other countries, and by the end of 2020, RFCx estimates that the amount of rainforest protected by the system will be responsible for absorbing 30 million tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of taking six million cars off the road.



Installing the Rainforest Guardian devices in the Philippines. (Photo courtesy of Smart Communications)

Data-driven mangrove restoration

We also showcase Ericsson’s Connected Mangroves project—a first of its kind reforestation project in Malaysia and the Philippines that deploys connected devices to support coastal communities’ and non-profit conservation organisations’ efforts to restore mangroves. Sensors powered by small solar panels help measure the environmental conditions affecting the health of up to 2,500 square meters of mangroves, allowing the local community to understand which environmental conditions are influencing survival rates and helping them adjust plant and soil conditions.

Ericsson has seen mangrove survival rates soar from 30 to 80 percent in the project sites, and beneficiary communities have also reported improved livelihoods (higher fish catches), improvements to biodiversity (including the presence of migratory birds that have been not seen for over seven decades), and greater climate resilience (through enhanced flood protection).



Interestingly, the 131 active projects included in our analysis indicate that when an NRM initiative receives support from an MNO or other technology organisation, it is twice as likely to leverage emerging technologies such as IoT, blockchain or artificial intelligence. Our report shows that ambitious and urgent action and a renewed commitment to working in partnership will be critical to protecting decades of development progress and achieving the 2030 climate agenda.

The GSMA CleanTech programme is committed to furthering this cause, and is actively working to help our members and development partners identify opportunities for innovation, facilitate scale and replicate best-practice models to support the transition to more resilient, equitable and decarbonised societies. If you or your organisation would like to join us in this effort, please get in touch.

Matt Wilson is a Senior Insights Manager at GSMA