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Panama’s Indigenous Technicians Are Using Drones to Fight Illegal Logging

Here drones are against deforestation

This story appeared in the February Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Article by Faye Planer and Tristan Martin. Photos by Tristan Martin.

It is 4:30 AM and our boat is heading back to the city after four days spent in the rainforests of Eastern Panama. We come to a stop on a bank of mangroves, the water and trees uninvitingly dark despite the full moon.

The indigenous technicians we've been travelling with get out their phones, not to check for danger, but to check their messages. We're moored in a rare spot where there is normally phone signal. "The Cayman must have eaten the signal," the captain jokes. It's clear that everyone on board is frustrated because they haven't been able to connect to the internet.

We've spent the last few days with an expert team of indigenous technicians who are working together with the Rainforest Foundation and the United Nations to monitor illegal deforestation within indigenous territories. They have brought their expertise and equipment to the Wounaan villages of Rio Hondo and Platanares, which have for years suffered the consequences of their land being invaded by settlers in search of timber and cattle pasture.

Hunched over a map in the village meeting hall, Elvis Cabezon points out nearby areas of deforestation he has marked with GPS coordinates.

Hunched over a map in the village meeting hall, Elvis Cabezon points out nearby areas of deforestation he has marked with GPS coordinates.

Despite its remote location, and almost complete lack of mobile phone reception, the people here see hope in technology preserving their traditional way of life, rather than threatening it. The youngest member of the team, Carlos Doviasa, comes from the neighbouring Emberá people. "Technology is just a way to access information," he explains. "If you don't have information you stay living in ignorance. What's better, to live in ignorance or to see what's happening beyond our territories?"

The monitoring team hits the ground running as soon as we step onto the shores of Rio Hondo, a small village made up of 50 or so thatched houses built on stilts. After receiving a weak response to the traditional ring-the-bell-to-call-a-meeting approach, Doviasa flies a quadcopter drone above the village. "This is the only way to get people to come here," he jokes. And he's right: the buzzing sound of the drone overhead seems to have a magnetic draw, and as night falls around 40 people have made their way to the meeting hall.

What Carlos Doviasa and his colleagues Eliceo Quintero and Donald Negria don't know about mapping and drones isn't worth knowing, yet they rely on the support of the community who know exactly where the most recent land invasions have taken place. Over the last year they have been training local technicians to log precise GPS coordinates of cleared land, using a free app on their smartphones.

The key local technician for Rio Hondo is Elvis Cabezon, a softly spoken 28 year-old, who joined the mapping programme a year ago. He holds up his smartphone defi antly. "With this tool which I have here in my hand," he says, "I think we can help our struggle a lot." Lit by the harsh light of a handheld work-lamp, the team huddle around a map late into the night, marking on it the GPS points collected by Cabezon.

Local monitors Carlos Doviasa and Eliceo Quintero check their GPS position as they trek to a suspected area of deforestation.

Local monitors Carlos Doviasa and Eliceo Quintero check their GPS position as they trek to a suspected area of deforestation.

Four years ago an expedition investigating a suspected logging site near the neighbouring village of Platanares ended in tragedy. Though the exact sequence of events remains shrouded in doubt, it is clear that a gunfight resulted in the death of Aquilo Opua, the leader of Platanares, and a logger called Batista Ezekie. Incidents such as these have made some villagers in the area frightened to enter the jungle, but Cabezon insists he has to do it for the good of the community: "If the primary forest disappears we will never see it again. I want the children born here to see what the forest is."

Once the data from Cabezon and other local technicians has been collected, it is corroborated with a database of satellite imagery called Global Forest Watch. Making use of infrared and thermal imaging from NASA satellites, the database charts changes in tree cover from the year 2000 to 2014. If the areas of deforestation picked out by the satellites match those marked by Cabezon, the drone team can be confident the area under investigation merits a mission to collect more detailed information.

Early the next day, the team head for a hill with a vantage point over the largest area of deforestation they have set out to map. For three hours, Rio Hondo's leader Fameru Osorio carries the drone in a large cardboard box over his shoulder, across rivers and through the dense tangle of foliage that makes up the forest floor. Eventually we arrive at a stark change of scenery. As we descend a hill the forest comes to an abrupt end, revealing a valley of lush green pasture with a small herd of cattle grazing on the brow of the next hill.

Cabezon and Osorio look out at the scene in front of us mournfully. To us it may look bucolic, but to them it signifies the greatest threat their community faces. The introduction of cattle ranches upstream from villages like Rio Hondo frequently contaminates their fresh water sources. The pesticides used to help the grass grow and the soil erosion caused by clearing trees turn the rivers a murky brown, making them unsafe for drinking, fishing and washing.

There is a degree of trepidation as the team take their positions for launch. The drone itself is made up of a few pieces of moulded styrofoam pinned together with carbon fibre poles and sticky tape. It requires a coordinated effort from the whole team to get the miniature aeroplane to fly: Doviasa on the controls, Quintero manning the computer with the flight plan, and Negria preparing to launch it into the air. As the motors begin to whir and the propeller spins, Negria takes a short run-up and hurls the drone into the wind. Doviasa hits the throttle, the drone climbs sharply and in seconds is beginning its ascent over the valley below. "Good luck!" Negria shouts to the white dot as it recedes into the bright sky.

Far overhead the drone criss-crosses the valley in order to get complete coverage of the deforested area. Taking a photo every few seconds, the drone will return with a couple of hundred images covering a ranch that will later be estimated at over 70 hectares. Getting it back to the ground turns out to be less predictable than the autopiloted mission itself. Gliding in towards us, the drone descends smoothly until the last minute, when Doviasa brings it to ground nose-first into the thick grass. Much to the amusement of the group, it narrowly misses our heads on its way down.

When we returned to the village after a day of successful monitoring, the technicians went straight to their laptops to process the data they had collected. A preliminary analysis of the imagery suggested that 80 hectares of land had been prepared for clearing in the past year.

One of the main causes of deforestation in this region is land being cleared for cattle pasture. Two members of the monitoring team look across one such ranch prior to mapping it from the air.

One of the main causes of deforestation in this region is land being cleared for cattle pasture. Two members of the monitoring team look across one such ranch prior to mapping it from the air.

The team clearly revel in the technical aspect of this mission, but when asked which bit of the software or equipment he likes the most, Doviasa says it's not really about the kit. "Honestly, I've seen a lot of great technology, and it's fantastic. But what I'd like to show is that indigenous people can use it. Now we don't just protect the forest in a cultural way, we protect it with technology."

The battle to protect indigenous land has become high-tech because the locals have to give the government credible evidence that they can't dismiss. According to Maricarmen Ruiz, the UN official responsible for the monitoring programme, "one of the big challenges is to prove to [the government] that the information they are collecting is very good – that the indigenous people know what they are doing." As far as Latin American governments go, Panama has a good reputation for protecting its rainforests and respecting indigenous land rights. In the 1980s it established a system of politically autonomous indigenous zones called comarcas. But the process ground to a halt after 2000, leaving many of the country's indigenous communities without any kind of legal status.

As an attempt to rectify this oversight, in 2008 the government enacted Law 72, a system that allowed indigenous communities living outside the recognised comarcas to apply for a separate land title. But the process proved torturously slow and difficult, in large part due to the frequent overlap with national reserves and the competing claims of farmers settled on the land.

Communities such as Rio Hondo have now been stuck in legal limbo for almost a decade: Officially their territorial boundaries should be respected while their application is being processed, but in reality the authorities have done little to expel incoming settlers. Last year the country's environmental agency, MiAmbiente, confiscated chainsaws from a nearby group of settlers, but have so far not been able to permanently evict them.To the surprise of both the technicians and the community, a team from MiAmbiente appeared in Rio Hondo on our second day there. As they trooped through the village with two armed environmental police, hopes were raised that they might be coming to make arrests or hand out fines to illegal settlers, but their main focus was to survey how the indigenous community were farming their land. In the meeting they called with the community, questions from the audience quickly departed from the survey to the more pressing matter of how they could get MiAmbiente to respond to their complaints. The MiAmbiente team explained to the people of Rio Hondo that a new law should mean any complaints they make move swiftly to the district attorney, rather than getting lost on a bureaucrat's desk.

But the new law still relies on MiAmbiente attending to the complaint and collecting their own evidence for the case. "We have to drag them out here, but we need information that's precise," Quintero reflected on the meeting. "This isn't a traditional fight like before, now it's a fight about technology and information."

We almost don't make it to Platanares, Rio Hondo's neighbouring village, as the boat's captain nearly misses the narrow window of high tide. The team only scheduled a short stop-over because the local monitoring team there hadn't collected information and GPS coordinates of invasions, like Cabezon had done in Rio Hondo. Without that there wasn't much for them to go on. Although they're only an hour apart by boat, the situation in Platanares is quite distinct. More of their land has been invaded and the settlers there have acted more violently against the indigenous community. The death of their leader, Aquilo Opua, has had a profound impact on the people there, and many are afraid to go beyond the village boundary for fear of what might happen.

Eliceo Quintero processes the drone imagery collected from a day of monitoring deforestation.

Eliceo Quintero processes the drone imagery collected from a day of monitoring deforestation.

The village congregate around 7 PM when Opua's successor, Jose Angel Puchicama, returns from fishing. He is visibly tired and nods off a few times as the technical team introduce themselves and state the purpose of their visit. After the general feeling of optimism in Rio Hondo we're surprised when one of the oldest men in the village complains to the team that he has heard of so many projects, so many programmes, but he still hasn't seen any change. Their land is still not titled and is still being invaded.

People discuss what to do with the local monitors for Platanares. Will they be encouraged to carry out their jobs now, should new monitors be appointed, or should monitors like Cabezon from Rio Hondo come and work in Platanares, too? It only becomes clear that one of the local monitors is actually in the room when a faltering voice from the back begins to tell his side of the story. It is Milanio Opua, the brother of the deceased leader.

"We were encouraged to do it at first, four or five years ago. We were always going up and down, gathering information, taking photos. And doing this, everyone knows what happened. I lost a brother. And since then what is there? There's nothing. I'm sorry for talking like this." His voice trails off.

Speaking to Puchicama later, he gives us some context to his village's despondency. "We never thought this tragedy would happen. And from that moment the community hasn't wanted to go there because surely there'll be another confrontation. Someone will be lost, either on our side or their side. Either way it's a human being."

There is no guarantee that titling their land will reduce invasions and put an end to violent confrontations, but it is the only hope that people here cling to. "Because we're indigenous, the government here discriminates against us," says Puchicama. "That's why they won't title our land. Maybe I won't see it, maybe my children will see it, but there isn't anything to do other than carry on fighting for our title."

Research published last year showed that titled indigenous territories in Eastern Panama are being deforested eight times slower than unprotected and non-indigenous land. The rate of deforestation was even slightly lower than that seen in government-protected reserves. So the evidence is clear that Panama's indigenous peoples are responsible guardians of the rainforests. What is less clear is whether they will be granted the responsibility to monitor and police those lands themselves.

Despite the mixed feelings felt among the people living along this river, the determination of their leaders is palpable.

Before we left Platanares, Puchicama told us that he saw the potential for this technology as "another weapon – not a weapon to hurt but to make sure the government doesn't take us by surprise. To also have our map so that they will give us a title." The leader of Rio Hondo was more reserved with his words. Carrying the drone up a mountain and back for six hours had said more than enough.