The Rainforest Foundation UK has unveiled a new open source tool to help prevent the destruction of African rainforests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The new website MappingForRights.org provides accurate interactive maps showing the location of communities living in the forest, and how and where they are using forest resources.

It also includes the boundaries of strictly protected areas and "the agents of forest destruction, such as logging companies". The website, which is backed by a database of digital maps, builds on the results of many years work to map the existence of forest dwellers in the forests of the Congo Basin.

The website was developed with the support of Oil Internet which specialises in the planning and production of information-rich websites, intranets and extranets. The database technical development was undertaken by Faunalia, which specialises in providing open-source support and expertise to environmental and community-driven initiatives using geographical information systems.

Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation, said: "It is now widely understood that helping indigenous peoples and other local communities to protect their land is one of the best and cheapest ways to conserve tropical rainforests.

"But the problem is that there are often no records even of where these communities are, or of which areas of forest they use or wish to protect."He said MappingForRights.org literally puts African forest communities on the map, and could "be an essential start in the process of securing legal protection for their land".

The MappingForRights.org interactive website and database is built on free open-source software and allows access to hundreds of detailed digital maps, most of which have been prepared by forest communities themselves with training and support from the Rainforest Foundation and other organisations.

Multi-media content such as photos, videos and music provides insights into the lives and livelihoods of the communities, whilst the maps show areas important for activities such as subsistence hunting, gathering, fishing and cultural activities.

The maps also show how inhabitants of the forest are threatened by logging, mining, industrial plantations and sometimes "strict nature protection".

MappingForRights.org will also allow communities spread throughout forest areas to relay geographically accurate reports or images straight into the map database, using smartphones or GPS devices and locally available computer services, to provide real-time monitoring of alleged illegal logging, poaching or land-grabs.

Photo: AdamJWC