Drones for ecology and conservation over Ecuador’s Pacific Equatorial Forest

First images from the sky of the Bamboo House and new research facility at the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve.

The Pacific Equatorial Forest at 0° latitude in costal Ecuador encompass a diversity of forest types within close proximity to each other, including tropical rainforest, moist evergreen forest, premontane forest, and tropical deciduous forest. It is part of the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena biodiversity hotspot and is considered the most threatened tropical forest in the world with approximately 2% of the original forest remaining. High rates of endemism combined with the massive forest loss in the region has resulted in organizations like the Centro de Investigación de Bosques Tropicales (Tropical Forest Research Center) reporting that the loss of this habitat “over the past 50 years represents one of the greatest species extinction events in history.” Primary threats in the region are the conversion of forest into cattle pasture, African palm plantations, and other agricultural operations. The Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) is working to preserve the last remnants of the Pacific Equatorial Forest with its flagship project the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve that now protects almost 500 hectares of the Jama-Coaque Coastal Mountain Range. TMA focuses their efforts on reforestation, conservation, and community outreach programs, creating a three-pronged approach to preservation.

Trying to get first flight in between rains.

Ryan Lynch, Executive Director of TMA, contacted me in mid-2014 to ask about using a drone to acquire high-resolution imagery of the Jama-Coaque Reserve (JCR). Ryan and I had met the year before at a meeting in Ecuador discussing the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve in Amazonia and I had mentioned my initial work with drones in the region. They had been trying to find decent satellite imagery but most of the time the majority of the area is shrouded in cloud cover. I told Ryan I had an extra multirotor copter I was bringing down to Ecuador with me at the end of the year for some work. I said we could work something out so I could head to JCR to show them how it worked and I would leave it with them if it seemed feasible. Well, some of my scheduling didn’t work out but things did work out with Ryan and I left for JCR after the first of the year.
When I arrived at JCR and got a firsthand look at the terrain I knew it was going to be a challenge. I brought a hexacopter made up of my own CNC’d parts as well as other mainstream manufacturers bits and pieces with the excellent FrSky Taranis TX/RX. After several years of different flight controllers I have now settled on the Pixhawk system using Arducopter. I had picked up a used Canon SX260 and loaded it with CHDK hack firmware, and built a Pixhawk to USB cable interface trigger following the excellent instructions at Flight Riot. I had pre-cached the area in Mission Planner with Google Earth imagery but soon realized the imagery seemed to not match the SRTM elevation data and was overall poor quality. What were stream valleys on GE had the highest elevations of the area in Mission Planner. We had no internet and just had to work with what we had (see below right: GE screenshot showing the low quality satellite imagery we had to use, regardless of the fact that the elevation data also appears to be shifted by up to ~100m.). I decided to trust the elevation data and not the imagery to fly by and setup a mission that maintained 150m above each waypoint. It was either going to fly the mission and come home or slam into the treetops on the mountainside opposite us. Twelve minutes later the hexacopter parked at the home position and I brought it down for a landing. Landing in about a 1m square area on the side of a mountain proved challenging to say the least. We eventually devised a plan that would require at least a few 2x3m takeoff and landing areas on the mountaintops for running the required missions to map all of the reserve. Wouter Hantson, TMA GIS expert, is also going to create a better basemap to load into Mission Planner for the future mapping efforts. This will greatly increase our confidence in mission development. Dodging rains at the start of the rainy season and dealing with some power issues to keep everything charged we managed to get several more flights in and work out the rest of the strategy for mapping the entire reserve.

Initial mapping mission image results over Jama-Coaque.

To my knowledge, TMA is the first organization in Ecuador to implement drone technology for its utility as a powerful new tool to assist their conservation efforts. Initial plans for the data are to use it for monitoring the area for illegal logging activities within the reserve on regular basis. Other more ecological based projects include identifying historic, small agroforestry plots that occur throughout the reserve that may not have already been found on foot. One of the major projects is going to be monitoring reforestation efforts and the harvesting of a balsa wood plantation that will be reforested. This is just the start of what should be a great collaborative partnership between TMA and myself as a researcher at Texas State University in the use of drone technology; in an effort to support conservation and ecological research in a biodiversity hotspot that needs our help protecting it.

Clear contrast of balsa wood plantation (lower left) and intact forest.

If you are looking for an excellent conservation organization to support then the Third Millennium Alliance is one you should consider. A big help in our efforts would be a camera capable of multispectral imagery acquisition. Even one of the modded cameras like an NGB converted Canon SX260 would help. Additionally, I am looking for a highly motivated and GIS experienced individual who would be interested in working with this data on some of these projects as a graduate student. Please contact me for more information: Shawn McCracken (frocga@gmail.com).
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tmalliance
Additional links:
Initial mosaic of approximately 8 hectares with trails overlaid:

Below: A short video from when we were taking imagery of a balsa wood plantation that is to be harvested and reforested with native trees.

Deforestation ramping up in Yasuni as Ecuador sets to open up national park to drilling

This story was originally published at www.mongabay.com by Shaira Panela on July 29, 2014.

Original story link: Deforestation ramping up in Yasuni as Ecuador sets to open up national park to drilling.

Satellite data shows recent increase in forest loss alerts in areas near oil development

Yasuni National park has been in the conservation spotlight in recent years, with oil drilling threatening the forests and wildlife of this biodiversity hotspot. Recently, disturbance in the park may have ramped up, with satellite data showing a significant increase in deforestation alerts within Yasuni National Park since 2011.

The increase in forest damage in the region coincides with a series of oil drilling activities near the blocks where deforestation alerts are clustered.

Yasuni National Park, established in 1979, covers approximately 982,000 hectares. The park is at the center of a small zone where amphibian, bird, mammal, and vascular plant diversity are all at the highest levels in the Western Hemisphere. Because of this, it is among the most biodiverse places in the world, with a large number of endemic and threatened species. For instance, the park is home to a species of bat (Lophostoma yasuni) found nowhere else in the world.

Map of oil blocks within Yasuní National Park.

Map of oil blocks within Yasuni National Park. Image courtesy of Finer, Pappalardo, Ferrarese, De Marchi (2014). 

However, Yasuni National Park is also home to an estimated 846 million barrels of oil. 

Despite its status as a protected area, energy companies have been drilling in Yasuni National Park has been the site of oil extraction since the 1970s. However, its most remote portions have been left untouched. Surveys indicate Yasuni’s oil field contains about 20 percent of Ecuador’s fossil fuel reserves, particularly in a portion of the park referred to as the ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) blocks. A protection proposal called the Yasuni-ITT Initiative was launched by president Rafael Correa at the U.N. General Assembly in 2007. The Initiative would have kept these blocks untouched if international donors paid half the expected revenue of oil extraction—$3.6 billion—into a trust fund set up by the United Nations Development Program. The international community pledged around $330 million, although only deposited $13 million, before Correa formally ended the initiative in 2013. 

Data from Global Forest Watch shows increasing disturbance in the park, with 1,416 FORMA Alerts from 2011 to June 2014. Most of the alerts are located near oil wells in the northern and central region – or parts of oil blocks 14 and 16. Block 14 is currently under the control of Chinese-owned Andres Petroleum Company, while Block 16 is under Repsol. FORMA Alerts (Forest Monitoring for Action) are used to determine areas of probable forest damage via remote sensing data and satellite information from sources like Google and NASA. 

FORMA alerts in Yasuni National Park have increased significantly in recent years. The top image shows alerts recorded in January, 2012. The bottom image shows alerts as of July, 2014. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

In addition to drilling, other human activities are impacting Yasuni National Park. 

“Deforestation is not only caused by extraction, but also by the outside influence of other industries/actors – including drug trade, illegal animal poaching/sales, illegal logging,” Pamela Martin, a professor at Coastal Carolina University who has conducted research on Ecuadorian forests, told mongabay.com. 

According to Martin, illegal loggers are cutting deeper and deeper into Yasuni, and in the process building roads that are allowing people to further encroach into the forest.

“Roads built in the park have increased colonization in those areas,” she said. “One outcome of such roads and the associated deforestation impacts, plus weaponry to hunt, is over-hunting and illegal poaching of animals.” 

Secret oil access road within Yasuní's Block 31
Secret oil access road within Yasuní’s Block 31. Photo by Ivan Kashinsky.

Conservationists have long opposed oil drilling, logging and other clearing activities inside the park because of the threats they pose to its biodiversity. But Martin also said that communities that live in voluntary isolation in the park, such as the Tagaeri and Taromenane, may also be impacted by forest loss as their homes are exposed to the outside world. 

In addition to providing vital habitat, mature tropical rainforest in the park also acts as a climate and water regulator. In addition, as oil is extracted and burned, the greenhouse gas load of the atmosphere will increase, exacerbating global warming. 

“In the long term, activities that promote deforestation, such as extraction, will have to be weighed against the overarching norm of well-being, sumak kawsay, for societies, nature, and the planet,” Martin said. 

Top biodiversity for species groups. Yasuni sits in the small red region, which has peak biodiversity for four groups. Map by Matt Finer, Clinton Jenkins, and Holger Kreft.
Top biodiversity for species groups. Yasuni sits in the small red region, which has peak biodiversity for four groups. Map by Matt Finer, Clinton Jenkins, and Holger Kreft.

“Sumak kawsay” is an Ecuadorian concept written into the country’s constitution that means to live in harmony with nature. 

In 2005, the environmental ministry of Ecuador ruled that oil drilling in the park would only be allowed if no roads were built. However, in May 2014, a group of scientists argued that Petroamazonas, a huge oil firm in Ecuador, built a road into the park, violating an environmental impact study. 

“[Ecuador’s] Environment Ministry needs to demand from Petroamazonas an explanation of how [and] why they just blatantly violated the terms of the Environmental Impact Study and license,” co-author of the report, Matt Finer with the Amazon Conservation Association, told mongabay.com in an earlier interview. 


August 2011: Spokesperson Yvonne Baki launched a media campaign to revive the Yasuní-ITT Initiative. 

2012: Roads were observed within Block 31, allegedly developed by Petroamazonas. 

January 2013: The Huapamala hydroelectric power plant project was launched. 

February 2013: President Rafael Correa was re-elected for a third term with more than 57 percent of the vote. At this point, Ecuador’s government had raised $330 million towards the Yasuni-ITT Initiative (with $13 million deposited). 

August 2013: Correa ceased the Yasuni-ITT Initiative and began opening up the park to oil extraction. He declared on television that the Initiative would not have been successful, as only a relatively small portion of the needed funds had been raised. “I signed the act for the decease of the trustee found Yasuni-ITT, putting an end to the protectionist Initiative,” he said, defining his decision as “one of the hardest anybody can take.” 

September 2013: The international community sent petitions and letters to the Ecuadorian Ambassadors in many countries to oppose the cancellation of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative. 

June 2014: Approval to drill was granted by the Ecuadorian government after an attempt by activists to trigger a national referendum on the issue was thrown out by Ecuador’s National Electoral Council. Large-scale drilling is scheduled to begin in 2016. 

July 2014: According to the Guardian, documents surfaced revealing Ecuador’s government was moving to install a power plant to exploit Yasuni’s oil fields while it was purportedly pursuing the Yasuni-ITT Initiative. 


  • Finer, M., et.al. (2009). “Ecuador’s Yasuní Biosphere Reserve: a brief modern history and conservation challenges.” Environmental Research Letters 4. IOP Publishing
  • Bass, Margot, et.al. (2010). “Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.” PLOS One. Chicago
  • Finer, M., Pappalardo, S. E., Ferrarese, F., & De Marchi, M. (2014). High Resolution Satellite Imagery Reveals Petroamazonas Violated Environmental Impact Study by Building Road into Yasuní National Park. Chicago

Read more at http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0729-gfrn-panela-yasuni-forma.html#M4PJM9UJZODMHPv0.99

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