Amazonian tribes use drones to track deforestation in Brazil

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The 28-year-old is from a tribe of 250 people called Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. The community – which remained isolated from the outside world until the 1980s – lives in a legally protected area of ​​rainforest extending over 7,000 square miles in Rondonia state, western Brazil. They depend on the forest for cultivation and gathering of food, hunting, fishing and medicine.

But the home of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and their way of life is under threat, because the Amazon is on fire.

“Nature is everything to us,” Awapy says. “It’s our life, our lungs, our hearts. We don’t want to see the jungle cut down. If you cut all of that, it will definitely be warmer, and there will be no rivers, no hunting, and no clean air for us. “This is why Awapy and representatives of five other indigenous communities participated in a training course in the use of drones organized by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Brazilian NGO Kaninde Ethno-Environmental Defense Association, last December. .

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

Drones create high-resolution images, videos and GPS mapping data that can be used as evidence when reporting illegal activity to authorities. Crossing dense jungle is difficult on foot, and drones allow indigenous communities to monitor a much larger area, while avoiding potentially dangerous confrontations with illegal loggers and land grabbers, says Spina Avino.

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

Spina Avino says technology empowers indigenous people. “They can put together a case with a lot of evidence that they can send to the authorities who then have much greater pressure and much greater resources to act on the illegal activities that are taking place,” he says.

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

The first time the team used a drone, they found an area of ​​1.4 hectares (roughly the size of two American football fields) that had been cleared of trees. Days later, they captured video of a helicopter spreading grass seeds over the plot – indicating that the land would be used for cattle grazing, WWF says.

WWF reports that the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) – the Brazilian government agency responsible for managing policies relating to indigenous peoples – was able to use the geographic coordinates provided by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to investigate the illegal logging in the area. .

In December 2019, during their first surveillance after the drone driving training course, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau discovered a plot that had been illegally cleared of trees.

“Technology is not a miracle solution”

Indigenous communities are increasingly using drones as machines become smaller and more affordable, says Jessica Webb, senior director of global engagement at Global Forest Watch, a World Resources Institute initiative that is developing technology to help to protect forests around the world.

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

In addition to defending the tropical 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 sacred bird for the Uru-Eu-Wau -Wau.

But technology is not a silver bullet, says Webb.

Combining this tool with indigenous knowledge “makes it so much more powerful,” she said, adding that the Amazon peoples have a deep understanding of the areas most important for the protection of animals, endangered species and water basins. water.

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

Amazonian tribes face growing threats

In last year’s fires, Rondonia was one of the states most affected by Brazil.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sent thousands of troops there in May to help curb illegal logging and other criminal activity that could damage the rainforest, according to the defense ministry. Bolsonaro and his government have faced sharp criticism from governments and environmental groups for their lack of action in tackling deforestation and for policies seen as encouraging development in 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 the state of Para, in northern Brazil, on August 16, 2020.

Campaigners fear outsiders will bring the coronavirus into indigenous communities.

As of mid-August, no cases of Covid-19 had been reported on the land of Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, according to WWF. However, an increase in the number of “invaders” – as they are called 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 the NGO Human Rights Watch, the Brazilians who defend the Amazon are threatened and attacked by illegal loggers.

“I get more and more threats and people come closer to me, check my routine,” Awapy says.

Despite the danger, he wants to continue to fight for past and future generations.

“I love what I do, especially defending the jungle, because I grew up in it and still live here. That is why I am defending it, for those who died defending our territory, who are deceased. I want to keep fighting for their Sake.

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