GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub

Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub -Community building project

News! Our Hub has been shortlisted for the final round of this call.

Intractable challenge

The GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub addresses the intractable challenge of achieving sustainable development for communities in rainforests and similar sensitive ecological spaces currently under threat. This is a seemingly intractable challenge due to an array of factors such as lack of sustainable technologies to harness non-timber resources from the rainforest, lack of strategic partnerships to build a value stream and to address complex local socio-political issues, and insufficient legal frameworks to conduct systematic interventions. UN predicts that global population is going to rise by 15% to 8.4 billion by 2030 and the primary forest area is predicted to decrease further.

Partner countries

GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub focuses on scenarios in four DAC countries – Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka – to understand diverse factors that make preservation of rainforests an intractable challenge and to propose sustainable solutions to overcome this. The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is the largest primary rainforest mass in the World and is a significant player to sustain human habitat on the planet. Recent studies point out the lack of resources in Brazil to effectively monitor and develop sustainable technologies to preserve its rainforests as a potential threat to the entire planet. Ecuador also faces an ecosystem crisis due to unsustainable farming practices. Indonesia has lost 0.84Mha of primary forests between the year 2000 – 2012 due to unsustainable farming, pausing threats to biodiversity and air quality. Studies done in Sri Lanka propose that promoting trees that yield products other than timber can reverse deforestation.

Community building efforts

 Brazil: It all started after Meeting the Amazonian Alliance, and becoming a signatory to the working group. Then PI and interested academics from Imperial College London and the University of Sussex first met the CEO and top leadership of the Amazonian Alliance on 15/09/2017 at the Dyson School of Design Engineering to identify opportunities in an approach to develop technologies to harness non-timber resources from rainforests and to involve local rainforest communities as active leaders and a beneficiary group to make sure we provide an economic solution to deforestation. Leila Sheldrick and Aran Dasan from Dyson School of Design Engineering, Imperial College London, followed up with a visit to Brazil to brainstorm user cases with partners like INPA, EBCF, and HDOM.

Visit to Borneo (Kalimantan) rainforest community in Indonesia (17/12/2017 – 23/12/2017)

In this visit, PI, Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara met officials from the Kalimantan (Borneo) forestry department officials and scientific leaders of the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) who have strong collaborative links with the Borneo forestry department, to discuss the user needs and to identify economic priorities for the local community and what scientific questions we can address to solve these economic questions.

Thrish first met the directors of the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) in Jakarta, which is one of the largest scientific research institutes in Indonesia with strong links with the country’s rainforest management and botanical gardens, to explain the objectives of this research hub. Their strong support was vital to build the scientific and support community in Indonesia.

Next, a visit to Borneo (Kalimantan) rainforest to meet local communities and the forestry management officers helped to identify opportunities, user needs, and technical challenges to be addressed.   

Finally, a brainstorming session was held in LIPI, Bandung, to identify key foci of technical challenges that the GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub will address to best serve the needs in the Indonesian context.


Visit to Ecuador (15/12/17 – 23/12/17)

Dr. Leila Sheldrick from Imperial College London (one of the investigators of the GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub) visited Ecuador with Miss. Sara Adela Abad Guaman, a Ph.D. student in PI’s group who is funded by the Ecuadorian Government to develop a robotic solution to assist hillside farming. Ecuador has diverse ecosystems. It not only has the

Galapagos Island but also due to the Andean mountains, this country is also divided in the Cost, Sierra, and Amazon regions. These ecosystems vary from dry forest, passing through the Andean forest (paramo), to rainforest, respectively.Nevertheless, the forest is disappearing due to farming, mining, oil extraction, and lack of a sustainable development of communities. The image below shows the deforestation level of many areas of the country.

The Ecuadorian government through institutions of Ecuador such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of the Environment, and Agrocalidad are eager to participate in this GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub to decrease the deforestation.

In this project, we are working with research partners from local universities such as the National University of Loja and the National Polytechnic School to solve these intractable problems.

Students from these universities play an important role in the development and technology transfer of this project.



Visit to Sri Lanka from 12 – 19th March 2018

Thrish traveled to Sri Lanka from 12 – 19th March 2018 to meet partners from the University of Moratuwa, a top university in Sri Lanka focusing on engineering, Sarvodaya Movement, an NGO with branches in all 24 Districts in Sri Lanka, and the Environment Foundation Ltd.

Identified community objectives

Based on these user need identification meetings, the GCRF Sustainable Rainforest Communities Hub will strive to accomplish the following objectives to address the above intractable challenge.

Economic and social objectives:
  1. To develop co-design approaches and systems to combine strengths of DAC country partners and those in UK to address the challenge identified above.
  2. To study diverse local social responses to new technologies and business models that involve international partnerships and use regular feedback to innovate strategies to gain local acceptance, recognition, and a sense of belongingness.
  3. To jointly explore and innovate micro-manufacturing methods to add value to a set of non-timber based resources in the areas of food innovation and herbs to provide viable alternatives to logging and unsustainable farming.
  4. To develop sustainable business models and value streams to exploit technological advances in the framework of a circular economy, to enable local economic development in an environmentally sustainable way, including the application of carbon offset revenue through the voluntary carbon offset market.
  5. To develop conceptual understanding around the link between local scale contextual indicators for development and macro-scale indicators related to the Sustainable Development Goals, the challenges, and how these may be addressed. Such work to include determining means by which the results can be transferable to other communities, and scalable in their impact, including via consideration of policy implications.
Technical objectives:
  1. To jointly explore for new materials as viable alternatives to timber as a construction material.
  2. To use state of the art remote sensing technologies to survey rainforest areas to enable non-timber resources to be developed for the benefit of local communities and alongside conservation
  3. To develop soft robotic technologies to assist demand driven placement of multi-modal sensors and to provide nodes for an ad-hoc network for efficient data communication within a rainforest, assisting researchers and communities in advancing sustainable development.
  4. To use data capture, including image data and audio data to potentially make natural sounds and images of the rainforest available online for recreation and scientific studies so that a vast interest group across the globe can support sustainable development and rainforest preservation.
Education and capacity building objectives:
  1. To hold hands on co-design and brainstorming workshops to engage key stakeholder groups such as students, teachers, government policymakers, environmentalists, farmers, and investors establish the appropriate and practical sustainable alternatives to current practices and enable reducing poverty and foster economic growth in rainforest communities without resorting to logging.
  2. To develop teaching modules where university students in UK and DAC countries can experience diverse user requirements and constraints through hands-on design projects to solve challenging global problems.


Economic impact

The hub will focus on methods to efficiently explore, locate, and catalogue non-timber organic resources, using new digitally enabled capabilities such as satellite and airborne remote sensing, micro-robots gathering field data, and other data platforms tracking higher level deforestation information. An appropriate data architecture linking local conditions to the wider economic context will generate new value streams for local communities within the constraints of forest conservation. This includes biodiversity protection, and reduction of CO2 emissions, through a process of co-creation of value with local communities, NGOs, and private sector partners already experienced in non-timber organic resource development and sustainable development in the rainforests. Application of digital technologies and micro-scale manufacturing processes will extend existing small-scale harvesting of products such as Brazil nuts and acai berries to sustainably increase the output of certain high-value plant oils used in pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. This also enables further skill development and new employment opportunities within the local communities, already benefiting from ICT and other modern technology.

Environmental Impact

The outcomes of this project will have a direct impact on the UN sustainable development goal (SDG)-15, that aims to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.  The non-timber bio-industrial opportunities created by the hub will meet UN ambition to promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally by 2030.

Social impact

Via an up-front ethnographic study, stakeholder networks will be mapped, and existing local community context, resources, and capacity will be evaluated. We will focus on developing and using methods for building empathy between investigators across disciplines and borders, and the primary stakeholders. Co-design methods will be developed to connect with local communities in the target areas of DAC countries. The creative capacity of the rainforest communities will be enhanced by their inclusion in the innovation process, and ensure that the investigation’s technological advancements are contextually appropriate, with a strong sense of intellectual engagement and ownership by the local participants. These pilots will involve embedding educational outcomes, bridging local communities with UK based academic institutes.

Academic impact

The very nature of a collaboration with the global south to address an intractable challenge to do with preserving rainforests by introducing alternative value streams will advance business and economic research in sustainable development, including the use of indicators linking sustainable supply chain management with international development. This project will make significant advances in fundamental knowledge in bio-inspired robot locomotion in unstructured and uncertain environments and non-invasive mobile sensing technologies. Combining ground-based and satellite-based information with a sustainable development (incl. socio-economic) will break new ground in data science and performance management. New tools for mobile sensor deployment in uncalibrated environments like forests will enable new technology development, but also tools to understand animal survival in a rainforest. Discoveries in new materials as alternatives to timber can radically change academic research in civil engineering and interior design.

Educational impact

This project will have significant impacts on curriculum development of taught undergraduate and masters programs in design engineering, business studies, sociology, robotics, civil engineering, computer science, botany, food science, economics, big data, telecommunications engineering, and geology. An example is the Global Innovation Design Engineering (GID) and Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) masters programs run jointly by Imperial College London and Royal College of Arts, where students will get an invaluable opportunity to participate in problem-solving exercises involving multiple countries and cultures. The co-design approaches will add new pedagogy for similar taught programs across the globe.

Meeting of UK based partners on 27th March 2018 to finalize project vision and plans

These community-building efforts were supported by an RCUK (Research Councils UK) travel grant and an EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) award (EP/P512655/1) to Imperial College London to build communities for Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) proposals.