Amazon tribes are using drones to track deforestation in Brazil

The 28-year-old belongs to a 250-strong tribe called the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. The community — which remained in isolation from the outside world until the 1980s — lives in a legally protected area of rainforest spanning 7,000 square miles in the state of Rondonia, in western Brazil. They depend on the forest for growing and gathering food, hunting, fishing and medicine.

But the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s home and their way of life is under threat, because the Amazon is burning.

“Nature is everything to us,” says Awapy. “It is our life, our lungs, our hearts. We don’t want to see the jungle chopped down. If you chop it all down, it will definitely be hotter, and there won’t be a river, or hunting, or pure air for us.”

That’s why Awapy and representatives from five other indigenous communities took part in a drone-operating training course run by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Brazilian NGO, the Kaninde Ethno-Environmental Defense Association, last December.

According to Felipe Spina Avino, senior conservation analyst for WWF-Brazil, who helped run the training, the group became hooked the first time they flew the drones and were able to see the forest from above. “They really accepted the technology with open arms and pretty quickly started to use it,” he says.

Awapy Uru Eu Wau Wau is one of a group of indigenous people who use drones to monitor deforestation on their land in the Brazilian Amazon.

The drones create high-resolution images, video and GPS mapping data which can be used as evidence when reporting illegal activities to the authorities. Traversing dense jungle is hard on foot and the drones enable indigenous communities to monitor a much wider area, while avoiding potentially dangerous confrontations with illegal loggers and land-grabbers, says Spina Avino.

The WWF-Kaninde project has donated 19 drones to 18 organizations involved in forest protection in the Amazon.

Spina Avino says the technology empowers indigenous people. “They can compile a case with a lot of evidence that they can send to the authorities which then have much greater pressure and much greater resource to act upon the illegal activities that are going on,” he says.

Awapy leads a team of 12 on patrols into the rainforest to monitor deforestation and forest fires.

The first time the team used a drone, they found a 1.4 hectare area of land (roughly the size of two American football fields) that had been cleared of trees. Days later, they captured video of a helicopter spreading grass seed on the plot — indicating that the land would be used for cattle pasture, says WWF.

WWF reports that the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) — the Brazilian government body responsible for managing policies relating to indigenous people — has been able to use geographical coordinates provided by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to investigate illegal logging in the region.
In December 2019, on their first surveillance after the drone-operating training course, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau discovered a plot that had been illegally cleared of trees.

“Technology is not a silver bullet”

Indigenous communities are increasingly using drones as the machines becomes smaller and more affordable, says Jessica Webb, senior manager for global engagement at Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute that develops technology to help protect forests worldwide.

The drones provided by the WWF-Kaninde project each cost around $2,000 — roughly the same price as hiring a helicopter for one hour to do similar work.

As well as defending the rainforest, indigenous communities use drones to locate Brazil nut trees, which provide a vital source of food and income, and to monitor important species, such as the harpy eagle — a bird sacred to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

But technology is not a silver bullet, says Webb.

Pairing that tool with indigenous knowledge “makes it so much more powerful,” she says, adding that Amazonian people have an intricate understanding of the areas that are most important for protecting animals, endangered species and water sheds.

The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe also use the drone to monitor important species, like the harpy eagle. They use its feathers for arrows and ceremonial headresses.

Amazon tribes face escalating threats

During last year’s fires, Rondonia was one of Brazil’s worst afflicted states.
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro sent thousands of troops there this May to help curb illegal logging and other criminal activities that could damage the rainforest, according to the Defense Ministry. Bolsonaro and his government have faced intense criticism from governments and environmental groups for their lack of action in tackling deforestation and for policies seen to encourage development of the Amazon.
With enforcement teams operating at reduced capacity, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in illegal logging in the Amazon, according to indigenous rights group, Survival International.
A fire rages in the Amazon in northern Brazil's Para state, on August 16, 2020.
Activists worry that outsiders will bring the coronavirus into indigenous communities.

As of mid-August, no cases of Covid-19 had been reported on the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s land, according to WWF. However, an increase in “invaders” — as they are referred to by indigenous groups — entering the area to carry out illegal activities, increases the risk of transmission, they say.

Awapy says he has received death threats from land-grabbers and illegal loggers for his work protecting the forest. According to NGO Human Rights Watch, Brazilians who defend the Amazon face threats and attacks from illegal loggers.

“I receive more and more threats, and people are closing in on me, checking my routine,” says Awapy.

Despite the danger, he wants to keep fighting for both past and future generations.

“I like what I do, especially defending the jungle, because I grew up in it and I still live here. That’s why I defend it, for those who died defending our territory, who have passed on. I want to keep fighting for their sake.

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