How old cell phones could save the rainforest

Old cell phones are piling up. With the annual updates now available from most manufacturers, we’re discarding our old tech with more frequency than ever before. 

But what happens to our old cell phones when they’re no longer needed? Do they gather dust at the back of a drawer? Most of the time, the answer is ‘yes’, but there might be a better option. One which could help save the rainforest!

Topher White runs a startup called Rainforest Connection, which utilizes old cellphones in a remarkable way. In a visit to the rainforests of Borneo in 2011, distraught at the increase in illegal logging and deforestation, something occurred to White.

How do we stop illegal logging?! he asked in a TED Talk on the subject, “It’s really tempting to come up with a high-tech solution, but in fact, you’re in the rainforest. It has to be simple, and what we also noticed was that everything we needed was already there. We could build a system that would allow us to stop this using what’s already there.”

White comments that, alongside the chatter of birds and the wondrous sounds of nature, there was also an almost-contiuous sound of a chainsaw felling trees. Certain measures were in place to try and limit the destruction, but the means and capabilities were very limited.

“We had this group of three full-time guards that was dedicated to go and stop it, but they just needed to know what was happening out in the forest. The real surprise was that there was cell phone service way out in the middle of nowhere. We’re talking hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road, there’s certainly no electricity, but they had very good cell phone service, these people in the towns were on Facebook all the time, they’re surfing the web on their phones, and this sort of got me thinking that in fact it would be possible to use the sounds of the forest, pick up the sounds of chainsaws programmatically, because people can’t hear them, and send an alert. But you have to have a device to go up in the trees. So if we can use some device to listen to the sounds of the forest, connect to the cell phone network that’s there, and send an alert to people on the ground, perhaps we could have a solution to this issue for them.”

White’s Ted Talk outlines his project in more detail:

The following video, outlining the project and its direct effect on the indigenous population of the Amazon, is from National Geographic.

‘Can old cell phones and machine learning help stop deforestation? The Tembé tribe from the central Amazon hopes so. In collaboration with Rainforest Connection, an environmental nonprofit, the Tembé are using old cell phones hidden in trees and TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine learning tool, to listen for sounds of illegal logging. Learn more about the Tembé and Rainforest Connection.

The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the world and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. To submit a film for consideration, please email [email protected]. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.’

Colin J McCracken
Colin J McCracken

Director and Executive Editor

Colin J McCracken is an Irish editor and writer of both fiction and journalism. Coming from a background in education and film, his passions are split between the environmental and the entertaining. Constantly striving for a more sustainable existence and trying to balance it while simultaneously buying too many books.