The Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN) has asked its 2021 Fellows about the innovative methodologies behind the impactful stories they published.
From Freedom of Information Requests to using AI to analyze satellite imagery, the reporters got their hands on previously unseen data that sheds a light on the corruption and systems behind the destruction of the world’s biggest rainforests. Read below to learn how they did it.
During his first RIN Fellowship, science reporter Yao Hua Law wanted to uncover whether forest plantations in peninsular Malaysia were actually delivering on reforestation goals.
For the past 20 years, forest plantations in the Southeast Asian country have been the main driver of deforestation. The government touts them as easier to manage than natural forests, which makes them better at supplying timber, and, in turn, means less deforestation in natural forests.
However, most forest plantation projects based in nature reserves stopped development after the clearing phase, and no trees were ever planted. The effects have been devastating on wildlife, which the reserves are meant to protect.
To analyze the situation, Law mapped government data using the mapping tool QGIS to measure the tree felling and planting. This tool is free and lets you analyze, compare, and visualize geospatial data. He also amassed a library of documents to figure out the owners and finances behind the government’s forest plantations initiatives.
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Law’s library includes environmental impact reports. One of these reports showed that an Orang Asli Indigenous community, which had opposed the clearing of their forest land for years, had suddenly approved for a logging company to come in and cut their trees. Something was amiss.
Law talked to the Orang Asli, who said they had been misinformed about the logging agreement they signed. His story about the case led to lawyers and NGO’s offering support to the Orang Asli, a blockade to stop the deforestation machinery, and the filing of a police report against the company.
Since then, Law has been invited to speak about deforestation in Malaysia on radio shows and at international forums, and has been approached by logging companies for advice on how to make sure their reforestation efforts succeed.
Pulitzer Center RIN Data Editor Kuek Ser Kuang Keng interviews Law on the challenges and methods of his investigation.
"The goal of my investigation was to examine if and how forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia were sustainable."
Yao-Hua Law, RIN Fellow
Pulitzer Center: Part of your investigation is driven by data. Can you give a summary of how you use data to drive your investigation? What problem were you trying to solve using data?
Yao-Hua Law: The goal of my investigation was to examine if and how forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia were sustainable. The whole premise began with data I picked out of analyzing forestry department annual reports back in 2020: A lot more forest reserves were being cleared to allegedly be turned into forest plantations than these plantations were being replanted. That made me suspect that forest plantations were being used as an excuse to clear-fell reserves, which could otherwise only be sustainably logged.
To conduct my investigation, I had to obtain data on the forest plantation project’s finances, and their impact on the environment and society. I needed data to tell if: one, the plantations were profitable; two, the plantations were producing the expected timber; three, the plantations were being developed in degraded forests or good forests; and four, the people behind plantations were somehow linked.
PC: What data and information did you use in your investigation?
YL: I used official forestry and timber production data from 1990 to 2021; official data on government soft loans given to forest plantation developers; corporate information (shareholder, bank charges, P&L statements) of specific plantation companies; maps of forest plantation zones, reserves, land altitude; geospatial data of high carbon stock forests; maps of forest quality; and satellite images.
PC: How did you obtain the data? Did you use any tools?
YL: Official data were obtained from government reports or years of conference reports kept in libraries and government libraries. Corporation information was bought from Companies Commission Malaysia. Digital shapefiles for forest plantation zones for Kelantan were obtained from the Kelantan state forestry department, while shapefiles for reserve maps were obtained from HutanWatch, an anonymous rainforest watchgroup; geospatial data of high carbon stock forests was obtained from a scientific study. Satellite images were acquired from Planet, Sentinel, and Earthrise Media. Maps of forest quality were digitized from physical copies of National Forestry Inventory.
I used different tools. To convert many tables in PDFs to datasheets, I used www.extracttable.com. To scan PDFs on my mobile, I used Adobe Scan (which can do free OCR on up to 25 pages per file). And I handled Geospatial data using QGIS.
"Some analyses were fishing expeditions where I’m just poking around hoping to find something extraordinary, but most often the analyses were aimed at examining specific hypotheses."
Yao-Hua Law, RIN Fellow
PC: How did you process and analyze the data?
YL: Almost all my data (except for geospatial data) storage and basic analyses were done in MS Excel. For the first 70 percent of my investigation, I used mainly MS Excel to analyze the trends in forestry data and look for evidence that shed light on the sustainability of forest plantations. I wanted to know what portion of annual logging happened inside forest plantations; which trees were planted more, and in which years; and what were the timber export trends of the trees being planted.
Some analyses were fishing expeditions where I’m just poking around hoping to find something extraordinary, but most often the analyses were aimed at examining specific hypotheses. Many analyses were not reported in the final story, though the findings were quite interesting.
In the last 30 percent of my data processing, I turned to QGIS a lot more, especially after I went into the field and returned with locations and stories. That tool helped me visualize where things were and connect the dots geospatially. The environmental aspect of the investigation would have been quite weak if I had not combined geospatial data and satellite images in QGIS to show the impact of forest plantations on natural forest loss.
PC: What is the hardest part in your data work? How did you overcome it?
YL: The hardest part was to get data on the plantations that failed or abandoned their sites. I found official statistics that show that more than half, and likely as high as 70 percent, of forest plantation projects only cleared the forests but did not replant.
What I really wanted to do was to investigate what happened on site, and why, and what the consequences were. I found places where that had happened, but they were quite deep into the forests and off-road, and it would have been illegal for me to enter without permission from the forestry department or planter. But no agency agreed to give me a list of planters—not even the planter associations themselves.
Instead, only planters who did plant agreed to speak with me, and even that was after a somewhat dogged effort and then serendipitous meeting. I didn’t manage to solve this problem, and in the end, I could only give the bigger picture statistics and explain why plantations were abandoned from third-party sources, not from the perpetrators themselves.
Another difficult challenge was getting geospatial data to show that forest plantations were developed inside good forests. I tried for months to obtain and then digitize maps of the National Forestry Inventory reports. These reports were in physical form with blurry maps that show the logging history of forests, which could be used as a proxy for the quality of forests.
I digitized the maps, and then assigned logging history to each plot using a protocol I developed. That took a lot of work, and I could show that instead of developing extremely degraded forests, plantations were being developed in reserves that had decades to rest and even in virgin forests.
In the end, however, I didn’t publish these maps in the story because the state forestry director himself admitted that forest plantations had been developed in good forests, so his direct quote is cleaner than my maps. But I did use my maps to ask him questions, and they gave me the extra confidence to push him on that.