starling satellite helps prevent deforestation


Starling is a satellite technology using big-data number crunching to quickly identify changes in under the canopy forest. It provides rapid information to help companies enforce their commitments to deforestation.

The Earthworm foundation- a non-profit – cooperated with Airbus, which has satellites already, to form Starling. The company monitors land cover using satellite data. The GIF below is produced using images from the Starling Verification website.

The use of Satellite technology whether through the Starling or through alternatives like the Global Forest Watch Project is a key weapon in fighting illegal deforestation. In this context, ‘fighting’ might mean early intervention – potentially within a week of noticing a change under the canopy to interacting with local bodies to determine whether an infraction is taking place.

The accuracy of making such a determination from just the satellite data was said to be around 94%. Avoiding the false positives is important so that local resources are not overwhelmed, or lose faith in the system.

If illegal farming is taking place, then time to intervention is an important element, not only to prevent the deforestation, but to prevent the growers from becoming established at which point the logistics of moving potentially a large number of people becomes harder.

This point which was raised on a podcast from Lumina Intelligence, called the ‘Sustainable food and drink podcast’, highlights another important point. If people are illegally growing cocoa and other crops, and deforesting in order to do that, then the underlying problem is the poverty driving people who see little other good options to provide for themselves and their families.

Along with prevention and intervention, we need to focus on ways to increase the options available to local growers so they see alternatives to illegal farming. In effect, this is Social Engineering in a pure form. The term coined by Ferdinand Tonnies in 1905 has this definition in Wikipedia

social engineering is a data-based scientific system used to develop a sustainable design so as to achieve the intelligent management of Earth’s resources and human capital with the highest levels of freedom, prosperity, and happiness within a population.


In fact, practical steps are being taken by companies, and Nestle does provide some good information through their ‘Cocoa Plan’ about their education programme for farmers on sustainability and generating alternative incomes, such as through bee-keeping.

Taken from Nestle’s Cocoa Plan – tackling child labour

When researching which companies where using Satellite technology, we were interested to see commitments from Lindt and Sprungli for their Cocoa supply chain, and Nestle made an appearance too.

However, reading the Nestle ‘Tracking Deforestation’ annual report and watching their Head of Responsible Sourcing talk about the programme using Starling, we were confused to see no mention of Cocoa?

Nestle talks about using Satellite tech, but not for Cocoa?

Nestle was quoted at Starling’s launch that they planned to have in place 100% traceability in their supply chain for Palm Oil by 2020. No mention was made for Cocoa, which seemed odd since presumably if they had faith in the system to alert about deforestation in Palm Oil, what was different for Cocoa?

In fairness to Nestle, in the Starling website testimonial section, they do say that they plan to extend their use of the system to ‘other commodities’, but they don’t say when the testimonial was made, which commodities, or by when!

Nestle revealed that 77% of the 12 key commodities it purchases that contribute towards deforestation are verified deforestation-free as of March 2019. This compares to 63% in 2018. While an improvement, it doesn’t seem to go as far as they had hoped.

Ultimately if we are not comfortable with the evidence given, we will blacklist the supply chain, we will go away from the supply chain.

Benjamin Ware – Head of Responsible Sourcing, Nestle

Lindt and Spruengli have together made commitments to prevent Cocoa deforestation using Starling technology. In their ‘No Forestation and Agroforestry Action Plan’ they say:

Since 2008, all cocoa beans sourced from Ghana are traceable from Lindt & Sprüngli
back to farmer community level


We must recognise that companies balance commercial considerations against the cost of sustainable and ethical practices. It is unrealistic to expect companies to do the ‘right thing’, just because it is right.

The most practical way to effect positive change is for consumers to continue to be made aware of the ethical choices being made by the brands they use. While a company might claim it’s people are their most important assets, most CFO’s will put the value of the brand at the top of the Balance Sheet. Bad publicity = brand erosion, while good publicity enhances brand values.

Systems like the Starling satellite one should be considered a big win by the industry, as they help companies take ethical, brand-enhancing actions, but at an increased efficiency rate and decreased cost to earlier, on-the-ground based alternatives.

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