Smart forests: Community networks at the center of environmental technologies

Jennifer Gabrys, a researcher of the Sociology Department at Cambridge University, recently visited Chile, one of the case study countries of the projectSmart Forests: Transforming Environments into Social-Political Technologies. The project explores the uses of digital technology for the monitoring and handling of forests, as well as the social, political, environmental and scientific consequences of these practices and mediations.

In Chile, the initiative –of which the Foundation is a collaborator– seeks to generate transdisciplinary knowledge on forest fires, together with researchers from both science and the arts, public services and local communities, with a special interest in La Araucanía. Within this context, Gabrys visited Bosque Pehuén, our area under private protection, to interview local actors and attend activities related to the research.

Fundación Mar Adentro: In relation to the name of the project, Smart Forests, what would a “smart” forest be like? That is, what technological characteristics or territorial implementations would lead to a forest being defined in this way?

Jennifer Gabrys: The question of what constitutes “smart” is important because it could be an ambiguous term. In the project, instead of defining “smart,” we analyze how diverse practices and technologies are used in order to map out and interact with a plurality of uses around forests. Therefore, in practice, it shouldn’t be a singular definition, but rather a changing term.

While on the one hand “smart” can be a marketing argument or a concept to promote technologies that offer solutions even at a planetary level; on the other, it can refer to a need to unite technology, data, landscapes, social actors and communities to address environmental problems. Ultimately, what is meant by smart –as a term– has a long history in the field of planning, especially in technology, to refer to approaches to complex problems that seek to unite areas that are usually disconnected. Smart Forests is therefore an investigation of political, participatory and democratic technologies, projects and political solutions.

Our research seeks to understand how and why technologies to monitor and manage forests might be promoted in times of environmental change, and what social processes can catalyze, support, limit or prevent those technologies. In Chile we analyze fires, but we have other cases studies on carbon markets in Indonesia, control panels and participatory mapping in India, and aerial data and technology for biodiversity conservation in the Netherlands. The focus is on the potential challenges and opportunities of these technologies.

You have recently met with various actors working in the study, prevention and management of forest fires. How do you see the coverage and diversity of organizations and actors present in the country?

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling within Chile and meeting many actors working in forest fires, from multiple perspectives. I have spent most of this time in La Araucanía and Santiago discussing how Chilean investigators, civil society actors and communities are going beyond simply fighting fires, by developing prevention practices that include community networks, communication campaigns, landscaping design, monitoring systems, alerts, and much more.

I’ve been impressed by the attention that is being given to the socio-ecological components of forest fires, as they are treated not just as a technical problem, but as something that allows us to think of ways to improve the environmental practices of residents, tourists, territorial managers and promoters and other actors to prevent risk. The strength of community networks is key, so that those with specific knowledge of local conditions can organically contribute to prevention. While some of this work is aspirational, there is an inspiring trajectory on how to develop new practices, collectives and environmental technologies that place communities at the center, while considering the links with other organizations within conservation, agriculture and forestry.

In that sense, how do you find the quality and diversity of forest monitoring, management and conservation technologies in relation to other territories?

I don’t have a complete picture of Chilean forest monitoring, management and conversation; but according to what I have observed, many of the tools and techniques are similar to those in other parts of the world, such as satellite mapping, GIS-based platforms, drones and Lidar, sensors, participative apps, and alert panels and platforms. There is a perception that Chile isn’t very digital, but it is actually the opposite, as the country has various technologies that monitor and prevent natural disasters.

Another question we can ask ourselves, in relation to your question, is what we understand by diversity: is it the range of tools and techniques, or the types of approaches within which technology is activated? To me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of what I’ve seen so far in Chilean forest monitoring. It is that technologies seem to be less of a definitive solution, and more a part of a set of measures for collaboration, prevention, responsiveness and regeneration.

What potential do you think exists between the intersection of art, science and technology in relation to forest monitoring and management?

The intersection of disciplines has always been a key part of my training. Before earning my PhD and becoming an academic, I worked in landscape architecture in the United States. In that field, our training consists of art, science, technology and social sciences, which is why I’ve been linked to environmental issues with a transdisciplinary and collaborative approach for years.

It would be impossible to tackle the environment as a solely technical problem, as if a set of environmental variables could be mechanically adjusted through a control panel managed by a panel of experts. Instead, there needs to be broad social commitment, as well as diverse and plural approaches to environmental experiences, imaginations and proposals for future transformations. In this sense, I am especially inspired by the call for submissions for the “Ecologies of Fire” residency, as a transdisciplinary contribution to the development of forest ecologies. I look forward to seeing how the residencies go and speaking to the participants to explore diverse approaches.

What socio-environmental and / or geopolitical characteristics make Chile an interesting country as a case study for Smart Forests?

Building on the previous questions, I would say that Chile is an interesting case study because it adopts an integrated approach to addressing forest fires. This is evident in the various disciplines and sectors that are coming together to address the issue. Working with FMA has been an interesting experience because there is a unique opportunity to collaborate between sciences, humanities and arts. In Bosque Pehuén, we have had meetings and seminars with researchers and actors that work in multiple areas, as well as enriching conversations on how to observe and monitor, manage and respond in order to regenerate forest environments.

Why focus on La Araucanía and not another region?

La Araucanía is one of the regions with the highest number of fires in Chile in the last years (2017-2022). Regions like Valparaíso, Maule and Biobío also have high levels, but La Araucanía has a particular context related to the high presence of combustible material, dense vegetation and the interaction of various organizations, local actors and indigenous communities. All of these variables and conditions are not found in other regions, and it has also been a very affected area due to climate change and the El Niño phenomenon, which has contributed to the frequency and intensity of the fires.

What stage is the project in? What other territories have been and will be part of the Smart Forests analysis?

The project started in 2020 and is currently halfway through its development. With two planned research phases, we are currently on the second one. At first, we conducted interviews with a wide variety of actors to understand how and where digital technologies are used or planned in forest environments around the world, including in places such as the United Kingdom, the Amazon and India. We also created a Smart Forests Atlas to share our research in an experimental open data format that includes logbooks, stories, a map and a radio with interview episodes.

In the current stage, we are working on case studies in Indonesia, India, Holland, Chile, Scotland and Norway. We are analyzing key forest landscapes, as well as sites with eco-social and governance practices and technologies to advance analysis, build social networks, share findings and catalyze different approaches to address environmental change and the planetary crisis.

How has your experience in Chile been these days? And what aspects do you find necessary to delve deeper during your visit next year?

It has been an exceptional and intense time. From attending Poligonal and learning more about the extensive work of FMA, to meeting with researchers, NGOs and civil society actors in Temuco and Alto Palguín –U. de La Frontera, U. de Chile, Cedel UC, Conaf, Agencia de Borde and P. Nacional Villarrica–, community representatives, visiting Bosque Pehuén and meeting with academics of U. de Chile in Santiago. I have learned and experienced a lot about Chilean environments and practices in a very short time.

Next year I hope to have more in-depth discussions with the actors working in forest fires about what aspects of the community monitoring networks are working, and which ones could be developed further in advance of fire seasons, learn more about the practices of Conaf and various investigations, as well as collective practices. I also hope that the field school we are planning –which will include training, dialogues and field work to promote a public-private network– will contribute to transdisciplinary research.

Jennifer Gabrys,

Professor of Media, Culture and Environment at the Department of Sociology of Cambridge University. She directs the Planetary Praxis research group and is lead researcher of the projects “Smart Forests: Transforming Environments into Social-Political Technologies,” “Citizen Sense” and “AirKit,” funded by the European Research Council (ERC). She is the author of “How to Do Things with Sensors” (2019); “Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet” (2016); and “Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics” (2011).

Violeta Bustos

Interviewed by Violeta Bustos communications Director at Fundación Mar Adentro.