Looking up through the trees a small howler monkey scurries away. Maybe it thinks the large white wings belonged to a harpy eagle planing overhead, or perhaps the strangeness of the fixed-wing drone is enough to frighten it away.
For centuries the Wounaan and Embera have lived in the Darien, the rainforest on the Panama-Colombia border that is known as one of the world’s most impenetrable jungles; it is the only place where engineers simply couldn’t build a highway to connect all of the countries in the Americas. Its biodiversity is legendary: sleek jaguars, brightly-colored macaws, and rare orchids abound. But its amazing biodiversity attracts loggers in search of valuable rosewood, poachers in search of game and exotic animals and farmers eager to burn down swathes of forest to set up homesteads. Its remote location has also made it difficult for the Wounaan and Emberá and other indigenous communities to protect their ancestral lands from these incursions.
These indigenous communities have been painstakingly mapping and guarding their territories in order to claim, defend and protect their lands for years; however there was little each individual community could do defend itself against invasions of their territories. As indigenous leader Tino Quintana explains, “The first invasion of our lands was in 1987. Every year it was one or two families, suddenly it wasn’t four it was ten…until there were 72 families living illegally in our land, our comarca.”
In a new initiative the Rainforest Foundation, is working with COONAPIP, the national federation of indigenous peoples in Panama to train indigenous mapping teams that can be deployed to communities throughout the rainforest. The teams are learning how to fly fixed-wing and helicopter drones, use sophisticated software to create a variety of highly accurate maps and document incursions into their territories. The teams and community leaders are using this documentation, including 3D maps, to inform and organize communities and pressure the State to respect their lands.
With these new teams in place, individual communities can request mapping of areas under threat. When needed, a community can determine what areas need to be mapped, and then work in coordination to create effective strategies to pressure the government to step up its efforts to protect the land. So far the teams have been able to map areas deforested by ranchers and illegal loggers and identify sources of agricultural waste contaminating their rivers and illegal settlements on their land. By using the drones communities can not only cover more territory and map more accurately they also reduce potentially dangerous confrontations with those invading their lands. The teams also provide technical support for communities fighting for recognition of their lands, and for creating land management plans to promote environmentally respectful, sustainable economic development.