Drones are helping Indigenous communities protect the Amazon

Brazil’s Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, is critical to the environment as it contains 10% of the world’s biodiversity and is a major carbon sink, absorbing 7.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. When deforestation occurs in the Amazon, a huge amount of carbon is released back into the atmosphere, creating an environmental ripple effect of global concern and magnitude. 

But closer to home, the Amazon is also important to several indigenous tribes. These communities depend on the forest in almost every aspect of their livelihoods, both spiritually and practically. This makes the protection of the forest of significant interest to them. The Amazon is home to over a million indigenous peoples who oversee a quarter of the rainforest’s land and nearly one-third of the Amazon’s stored carbon. 

Protection of the Amazon is critical; but, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic forced the world’s governments to focus on other issue areas. Governments were fixated on slowing the spread of the virus in order to reopen the economy and society — and environmental and resource matters fell by the wayside. In Brazil, this shift in focus meant that the country significantly relaxed its environmental regulations and enforcement, causing an influx of illegal activities in the Amazon. 

Amid COVID-19, governments also promoted industries such as agriculture through grants and loans in order to further boost the economy, which only encouraged more environmental destruction in the area. These policies led to deforestation in the Amazon increasing by nearly 10%, suffering its highest level of deforestation since 2008. With up to 50% of the Amazon already partially destroyed and deforestation rates still rising, indigenous communities, such as the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe, are turning to modern technologies to combat illegal deforestation.

Traditionally, indigenous peoples monitor their territories by patrolling foresta by foot or by boat to ensure the forest is still intact. In fact, studies have shown that indigenous communities are the best protectors of the forest, with 50% lower deforestation rates in their territories. However, because their territories cover a large area, it is not unusual for deforestation to occur without the tribes discovering it until it is too late — after the trees have been felled and burned. 

NGOs such as the Rainforest Foundation U.S. are helping introduce and incorporate modern technology into tribes in an effort to put information and data about deforestation into the hands of those it affects the most. The foundation discovered that modern technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible making it easier for indigenous communities to use. The Rainforest Foundation U.S. have been forming partnerships with indigenous communities since 1989 to help them secure their rights and protect their lands. Critically, they wanted to include indigenous leaders in environmental efforts by supporting them with technology and publicly available satellite data, allowing for a more efficient method of protecting their land. 

The foundation partners with indigenous communities, each of which elects a forest patroller to be trained in technology that will help them better patrol their territories. They are integrating handheld smartphones with customized apps to collect and upload information about suspected deforestation in remote areas, which they can then use to navigate to areas with disturbances during their paroles. With this technology, indigenous communities can collect stronger evidence of illegal deforestation, which they can give to either the traditional authorities or to government officials to enforce their land rights. 

According to the Rainforest Foundation, Fernando Durán, a member of the Buen Jardín de Callaru community, was skeptical that these methods would not produce positive results, believing that the monitoring technologies would be used by government agents that would infiltrate their territories and make false promises. However, within the first year of implementing the new monitoring program, they saw deforestation decrease in their community from 12% in 2018 to 0% in 2019 and 2020. Many other communities saw the same reduction in deforestation, with an overall 52% reduction in deforestation within the first year. 

Currently, the major technology helping indigenous people protect their territories is the use of drones. Rainforest Foundation U.S. has trained indigenous community members on how to create high-quality maps of their territories by using drones, as well as integrating them into their monitoring systems. By using drones to monitor their territory, instead of the traditional way on foot, indigenous groups are able to identify areas that are being deforested much faster. The drones also allow groups to record video footage of the illegal deforestation without having to directly confront any of the loggers. 

The World Wildlife Foundation and a local NGO called the Kanindé Ethno-Environmental Defense Association created a project intending to train three people from each village to to use drones, laptops, cameras, walkie-talkies and a GPS device as a way of protecting their land. In December 2019, the WWF-Kanindé project trained young leaders from six indigenous communities to use drones for surveillance over deforestation. They brought 19 drones for 18 organizations that are focused on preserving the Amazon. 

One of the communities that benefited from this project was the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a small tribe in the Amazon. The tribe was given two drones, which have allowed them to quickly cover a lot more land during their patrols since they live in a large area of 7000 sq miles, which makes it difficult to travel through the dense jungle on foot. Within the first month of using drones, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau discovered a 494-acre area being deforested on their reserve in the Rondonia state, for cattle ranching. The tribe was able to take video footage using the drones and report it, without having to make contact with the loggers. If the logging is caught and reported in the early stages, law enforcement can go out to the site and shut down operations before significant damage is done. 

When collecting evidence against illegal logging, indigenous people face death threats and threats of violence against them, putting them at risk every time they challenge these loggers. However, they have embraced the technological monitoring systems openly as they believe these tools can empower their communities. Ultimately, these groups feel as though there is a greater threat to their culture if they do not take action to stand up against deforestation

The use of drones and technology in the Amazon is only one way to help reduce illegal deforestation and mitigate the effects of climate change. While it is not a perfect solution to the problem, as drones have limitations in terms of how far their range is and how much battery they have, this project remains promising. And, most importantly, these initiatives have incorporated and utilized the expertise and voices of the indigenous communities who know the forest, and how to protect it, best.

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