16 Sep 2019 Story

Bringing virtual forests to life

Lush and green ancient forest is not what most people imagine when thinking of Russia. But despite living a fast-paced city life, Marianna Muntianu knew the reality all too well.

It was visiting her grandmother that she discovered tall emerald alpine forests with thick canopies, home to abundant mushrooms and berries which they would pick together.

“I saw how beautiful and diverse nature was. Then one very hot year, there were terrible wildfires blazing all over Russia. Smoke covered cities, and people walked the streets wearing masks. The picture was so eerie, and I was devastated that we were losing this beautiful natural heritage.”

The forest fires have not stopped. This year alone, a spate of Siberian wildfires which began in July have since covered 2.6 million hectares, according to the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite imagery and local forestry services. 

When she realized that these spaces were not being reforested, Muntianu joined an environmental organization headed in the Kostroma region which straddles the banks of the Volga river, the longest in Europe. 

Muntianu was devastated about forest loss in Russia and decided to take action
Muntianu was devastated about forest loss in Russia and decided to take action. Photo by UN Environment Programme

“I discovered a love for tree-planting, for being something of a creator,” she said. “I worked to establish school nurseries, giving lessons on forest reforestation. We planted seedlings in areas of the country badly in need of reforestation. In three years, we planted 330,000 trees.”

But it became obvious to Muntianu that reforestation efforts alone are not enough to combat deforestation. That’s when Muntianu started exploring the idea of virtual reality.

 “There are around 1.3 billion people around the world who play computer games—roughly 18 per cent of the global population. Not only is this technology highly relevant, the scope of impact with virtual reality is huge.

“I started thinking about how we can use modern technology to build, not destroy. I started exploring the idea of creating games to benefit both players and our planet.”

Muntianu and her team created an educational mobile game combining the virtual world with reality
Muntianu and her team created an educational mobile game combining the virtual world with reality. Photo by UN Environment Programme

Another advantage of gaming is to bring people in cities closer to the realities of environmental destruction which may be happening elsewhere, in remote areas of the country, explained Muntianu.

“Many people live so far away from forests and are not sure how to help, with little free time. I explored more interactive games, then the mobile game ‘Plant the Forest’ was born.”

The educational mobile game combines the virtual world with reality. Players grow their own virtual forest, complete with insects, animals and birds, and in parallel, new forests are planted by volunteers.

Users learn what needs to be done to encourage animals to appear and how to restore the environment step by step. Forestry staff advise which trees to plant where, and provide aftercare.

In warm regions, deciduous species such as oak, poplar and maple are planted. In Siberia, coniferous species like spruce, pine and cedar are grown. Disaster and pest and disease-resilient varieties are also chosen.

Today, more than 4,000 people and 10 companies have planted over 400,000 trees in 17 regions of Russia through ‘Plant the Forest.’

Already the team have planted thousands of trees across Russia
Already the team have planted thousands of trees across Russia. Photo by UN Environment Programme

A permanent crowdfunding platform is used to raise funds for the restoration, and donors are issued with a special certificate showing the Geographic Information System (GIS) coordinates of their seedlings.

“Our aim is to raise the alarm that forests really do disappear. Every time we cut down a tree, it is rarely replanted. We must take responsibility for restoration.”

“My dream is that everyone who plays the game enjoys the experience and realizes that each of us can play an active role in preserving nature and our planet. I believe that dreams have a tendency of coming true!”

The game has already been developed and an official presentation on its release will take place at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai.

UN Environment Programme’s Terrestrial Ecosystems Chief, Musonda Mumba, said: “It’s really encouraging to see such a young woman find an innovative and technological solution to the issue of forest restoration. Marianna’s work is so important and pivotal to our terrestrial restoration work under the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.”

The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Marianna Muntianu is one of seven winners announced this year! Stay tuned to apply in January.