Unmanned aerial vehicles have the potential to empower indigenous communities to become equal partners in the efforts to safeguard their territories and natural resources.
Throughout the Americas, indigenous forest communities’ territories face intensifying threats, as global demand increases for land and forest resources. Non-indigenous settlers and loggers illegally enter indigenous territories to poach valuable timber or to burn and clear large swaths of forest. Emerging technologies, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones – offer an unprecedented opportunity to empower communities to defend their territories and natural resources. UAV technology allows them to monitor their land in real time, obtain visual evidence of any trespass, and make claims based on this evidence
Some of Panama’s indigenous communities already make use of UAVs to protect the rainforest. Nearly 70% of Panama’s remaining intact rainforest is governed by indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities see the forest as part of their culture and heritage, respecting and understanding its value and safeguarding it for future generations. Newcomers to the area tend to see the rainforest as something to be exploited in the short-term, particularly for felling valuable old-growth hardwoods and clearing forested areas for cattle ranching.
Panama’s indigenous communities began using UAVs in 2015 with the support of the Rainforest Foundation US and Tushevs Aerials. Tushevs Aerials is a small organisation that designs and builds UAVs and processes data into maps or digital 3D models. It provides training in any aspect of UAV construction, operation, and data use. Since the beginning of this project UAVs have successfully been used to document illegitimate land occupancy and illegal land occupancy and illegal logging by non-indigenous groups.
The rampant deforestation in the Darien region of Panama perfectly illustrates this dynamic. Islands of rainforest have managed to resist outside pressure from settlers, thanks to the indigenous communities that inhabit and protect them. With the use of a custom-built fixed wing UAV, the Emberá peoples – near the community of Puerto Indio – could spot and survey over 200 hectares of converted forest that has been illegally occupied by cattle ranchers. The communities’ leaders were stunned to witness the extent of the damage. Prior to seeing the aerial imagery, they had thought that there were only about 50 hectares destroyed by illegal ranching.
The occupation and conversion of forested areas occurred several kilometres away from where the indigenous community lives. But because of tensions with the settlers, who are often armed and confrontational, they had not been able to enter the area and document the illegal ranching practices. Using the UAV allowed them to quickly and safely gather data that evidenced the trespass of their territories.
Tino Quintana, the cacique or traditional chief of the 440,000 hectares’ traditional territory, took the lead on presenting the results of the UAV survey to members of several other Emberá communities. These communities are now working together by using aerial imagery documentation to register official complaints with the regional authorities. The government has promised to remove the settlers, and the Emberá communities plan to reforest the area.
Governments are often faced with resource shortages, and are frequently unable to respond to all requests for intervention. Spatially explicit UAV documentation of illegal logging and land occupancy helps government agencies prioritise their efforts, ensuring that a week-long field inspection will collect enough evidence to justify government intervention.
This experience generated further interest in UAV technology among indigenous communities in eastern Panama, inspiring other leaders to ask for UAV support. The Emberá and Wounaan General Congress, which oversees thousands of hectares of rainforest across 27 distinct territories, was given a DJI Phantom 3 Professional quadcopter by the Rainforest Foundation in November 2015. Wounaan leaders flew this UAV within the district of Platanares on the Pacific coast of Panama. The geo-referenced images proved that 10 hectares had recently been burned for cattle grazing in the middle of their territory.
Diogracio Puchicama, a Wounaan indigenous leader, who has been threatened by illegal loggers and settlers for several years, because of his efforts to protect 20,000 hectares of rainforest along the Pacific coast, submitted the UAV-generated documentation to the environmental authorities. Impressed by the accurate geo-referencing of the images documenting forest destruction, the Ministry of Environment promised to be more present in the area and enforce the law.
In late January 2016, Diogracio reported that the authorities had been patrolling the district of Platanares constantly, and that most of the settlers had been at least temporarily removed. ‘I have been denouncing illegal loggers in Platanares for over five years, and the authorities have done nothing, not moved a finger,’ Diogracio Puchicama noted. ‘Now, after they have realised that we have the drone, they are doing their job and enforcing the law. It’s a good sign.’
Protection of indigenous rights
Emberá and Wounaan communities are planning in partnership with the Rainforest Foundation US and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations to fly UAVs in at least six more indigenous communities in Panama. They will use the imagery to raise awareness among local communities of the ongoing illegal and un-monitored forest destruction within their traditional territories and the need to document and denounce this destruction to the authorities. They will also use the aerial photographs to help Panamanians understand how important forests are, and the essential role that indigenous peoples have played in keeping them intact.
The experience from Panama illustrates that UAVs have the potential to alter the power balance in favour of indigenous communities’ own ability to protect, monitor, and report on their lands, territories, and natural resources. This technology empowers indigenous people to play an active role in safeguarding their lands and to become equal partners – rather than just beneficiaries – to government and civil society agencies, which are involved in conservation and rights’ protection.
Indigenous peoples’ communities, organisations, and their civil society partners in the region and beyond are now very interested in adopting UAVs for conservation or for the protection of indigenous rights and territories. There are further discussions with the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests regarding the use of UAVs in Central America and with an indigenous network in Bolivia. Indigenous communities in Guyana and Indonesia are already using UAVs for land mapping. Also in Africa the Shompole Maasai community in Kenya and a forester in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are interested in using the technology. This shows that the interest in UAVs is growing all around the globe for monitoring illegal land use in indigenous territory.
Video on mapping land invasions in the Emberá-Wounaan Comarca with UAVs.
Video that shows a 3D model of the indigenous area surveyed by UAVs in Panama.
Video that demonstrates how Dayaks in Indonesia make use of UAVs.
Article and video outlining a training in the use of UAVs with indigenous communities in Peru.