(Reuters) - Satellite imaging has been used to spot deforestation in areas of palm oil cultivation for years, but obtaining the images was expensive and they often took months to arrive to end users.
New systems are now being adopted by consumer goods companies and commodity traders including Nestle, Unilever, Cargill and Wilmar.
Speed - the new systems aim to make the process almost “real time”, although in practice that typically means at least five days. Companies say that allows them to make swift decisions - sometimes cutting ties with suppliers - based on the data.
They involve more detailed base mapping of concessions and forests with help from environmental groups, so companies can target areas where valuable forests are shrinking, rather than sending verifiers in at random.
Previously, problems with government data and reluctance by palm oil companies to specify plantation boundaries made it difficult to gauge when they encroached on protected forests.
Global Forest Watch Pro uses satellite imaging and mapping to monitor forests and sends alerts to users when it picks up changes. It is being piloted by a host of traders, brands and growers - including Wilmar, Cargill and Unilever - and will launch to wider use this summer.
Creators of the Starling system being used by Nestle and piloted by Ferrero say it sends alerts in “near real time” - typically five to seven days - via its web portal whenever it detects forest cover change greater than a football field, linking it to nearby mills.
The platform combines satellite images captured every 20 minutes by Airbus, NASA and the European Space Agency, overlaid with maps showing the legal boundaries of plantations, locations of suppliers and the conservation value of nearby forests.
Reporting by Ana Ionova and Martinne Geller in LONDON, A. Ananthalakshmi in Bahau, MALAYSIA and Emily Chow in KUALA LUMPUR; editing by Philippa Fletcher