Earth observation analytics company Global Surface Intelligence (GSi) has harnessed its machine learning software - developed in part from missile guidance systems - to help protect the virgin forest of the indigenous people of Broadback Valley in Quebec.
GSi is providing its technology for free to the Waswanipi Cree after learning of their plight on social media. By interpreting satellite images of 1.3 million hectares of forest around Waswanipi in Quebec, GSi's software is showing the full extent of the impact of logging on the ecosystem for the first time.
GSi chief executive Nigel Douglas said: "I read an article online about the Waswanipi Cree's ongoing struggle to protect the forests where they live, hunt and fish, and immediately realised that this was something we could help with.
"It turns out that the one thing the Cree Elders were looking for was good satellite data. We are able to provide that because our systems observe every forest in the world at least twice a day and have done this since 2001.
"Satellite images are one part of it, but we also couple that with multiple topographic features, sampling on the ground and very high performance machine learning software, developed in-house, which is 100,000 faster than generic open source options.
"What the Quebec data showed conclusively is the value these ancient forests hold and when they are cut down for road building or logging they don't grow back in the same way as they did naturally – as the Cree had long known, but were struggling to prove."
The Waswanipi Cree's current struggle centres on the Broadback Valley, a thriving ecosystem of lakes, rivers and old growth forests covering 1.3 million hectares that has been described as one of the last intact boreal forests in Quebec.
The Cree Elders are concerned that logging is having a detrimental effect on their way of life, as well as being a major contributor to the dwindling caribou populations in the valley. They say that when clear-cutting occurs for logging, the land is never the same again. Mandy Gull, deputy-chief of the Waswanipi Cree First Nation described clear-cutting as "a scarred lung that would never heal".
The Elders have been fighting to protect their land so it can remain in place for future generations and have presented a wealth of scientific evidence to the Quebec Government to help their cause. But historical evidence showing change over time had proved almost impossible to obtain.
Now GSi's technology, based on advances in satellite observation processing, is providing quantifiable evidence of the potential damage. The company has built up the capacity to recognise forest densities and even species composition within forests based intelligent satellite observations, allowing large areas to be covered. It even applied some of the same analytics used by missile guidance systems to make its system fast enough to interpret all the available data.
Around Waswanipi, it's showed a reduction in average timber volumes from 100 cubic metres per hectare in 2001 to a low of 83 cubic metres in 2009, with minimal recovery since then. A 17% reduction is double that seen across the rest of Quebec.
Mr Douglas said: "The struggle of the Cree Elders in Waswanipi to protect their lands tugs at your heart. So far what we have provided is our off-the-shelf product but we will be able to offer even more detailed historical information if that is what they need.
"There is a certain irony to think that missile guidance technology might actually help the Cree to safeguard their land."
Cree First Nation of Waswanipi
Global Surface Intelligence (GSi)
Greenpeace International video #SavetheBroadback