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These indigenous Peruvians are fighting deforestation with satellites and drones

Indigenous people in Peru are defending their land with satellites and drones

BUEN JARDIN DE CALLARU, Peru — Pablo García Cahuaza is part of a small group of locals here learning how to defend their land with the help of technology. This tiny, isolated village of Tikuna people sits on 4,000 acres of protected rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon, an expanse that was impossible for the community to surveil and protect, until recently.

Through a system of satellite alerts developed at the University of Maryland, combined with drone technology on the ground, residents are now able to monitor their land from above. While satellites track changes in the forest cover over time, García Cahuaza and other designated “monitors” from the community use drones — and their feet — to investigate. If they find an illegal clearing, they confront the invaders, and most will leave of their own accord.


Camila Flores, Miguel Rivera and Pablo Garcia Cahuaza, the three community monitors of Buen Jardín del Callarú, learn how to use drones to surveil and protect their land with the guidance of the Rainforest Foundation. (VICE News/Javier Manzano)

“There are people who understand,” said García Cahuaza. “And they go away. But there are people who don’t understand, and who make problems. And that’s where it gets hard.”

Deforestation in Peru has almost doubled since 2001, mostly caused by small-scale loggers and farmers, who cut down forest to grow coca for the black market. Indigenous people say that, while the satellite alert system — which was first brought to Peru by an American NGO called the Rainforest Foundation — has dramatically increased their ability to protect their territory, deforestation will continue as long as the Peruvian state fails to control it.


Buen Jardín del Callarú is a tiny, isolated village of indigenous Tikuna people that sits on 4,000 acres of protected rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon. (VICE News/Javier Manzano)

When villagers filed a formal complaint about an illegal logger on their land, a prosecutor for environmental affairs led a team with a heavy police escort to visit the site. But while they confirmed the existence of the clearing, they declined to question the person allegedly responsible, and failed to find a field of young coca plants growing only a few dozen meters away.

“I know that nothing is going to happen,” said García Cahuaza after the authorities left the clearing and the coca field undisturbed. “Justice is not for the poor. It’s only for the rich.”


Commander Jorge Luis Alvarez of the National Police of Peru smelling coca leaves in a plot adjacent to the deforested land of Buen Jardín del Callarú. (VICE News/Javier Manzano)


Land cleared illegally by invaders. (VICE News/Javier Manzano)

Cover image credit: Javier Manzano

This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.