By Anna Pujol-Mazzini
LONDON, Sept 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With a little help from the latest technology, and armed with a small plane he flies over the world's biggest forests and reefs, ecologist Greg Asner believes protecting the planet and fostering economic development do not have to be mutually exclusive.
For years Asner has taken his airborne laboratory - an old 20-seater plane now fitted with desks, computers and equipped with the latest mapping technology - around the globe, from the forests of Malaysia to the coral reefs of Hawaii.
The tools he and a team of engineers have designed allow them to learn about the land underneath them in great detail, from how much carbon is stored in the soil to the chemistry of each tree, saving on hours of "walking around collecting beetles", as Asner puts it.
"It doesn't have to be humans versus nature, it can be humans and nature," the 49-year-old scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"But to do that well, you have to know where the biodiversity is, what its condition is and how it's changing so that you can work with it."
Human destruction of natural habitats, unbridled economic development, pollution and climate change are among the threats to plant and animal life, on land and underwater.
Preserving biological diversity is an uphill fight as the needs of the world's growing human population - now numbering more than 7 billion - increasingly come into conflict with protecting nature.
But experts say failing to protect the essential diversity in the natural world would cost billions, creating global repercussions of disease, hunger, poverty and diminished resilience to climate change.
Mapping in great detail the world's biodiversity - the vast variety of animal and plant life on Earth - allows the team of scientists to understand the impact of deforestation, gold mining and climate change on certain natural areas.
By sharing the data with governments, Asner's team empowers them to understand the impact of particular development projects on an area, and potentially to minimise it - or so he hopes.
"In the past, the development would be blind to what's out there. On a forest, you might decide to put a town, an oil platform, a plantation, a cattle pasture, and you don't know what you've wiped away," Asner said, after receiving a Heinz Award for his environmental work.
"The answer rests in where and how you place that development."
Asner and his team have mapped 300,000 sq miles (776,000 sq km)of the Peruvian Amazon by plane and with satellites, and much of the forests of Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and South Africa, as well as California's forests and Hawaii's coral reefs.
In Hawaii, lawmakers are considering a ban on sunscreen - which researchers say contains an ingredients toxic to coral - after mapping showed the extent of coral reef die-off.
While Asner's plane, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, has helped map regions much faster than scientists on foot would have, he plans to take his research to the next step by putting his technology in orbit - for the modest sum of $125 million.
"Imagine a future where we could map out the biodiversity of the planet every two weeks and understand it, see it changing and engage governments," he said.
"They just need to be empowered with the information to engage the process of green development."
(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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