Ashaninka Land Monitoring Initiative

Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory, Marechal Thaumaturgo Municipality, Acre State, Brazil
2015 -
indigenous person using phone
Key Lessons 
  • The Ashaninka people, whose lands cross the border between Brazil and Peru, have faced historical pressures of disease, exploitation and displacement, and today still face the illegal invasion of their lands by loggers and hunters. This monitoring project shows how the Apiwtxa Ashaninka from the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory, Brazil, are beginning to use smartphones and technological tools to monitor these illegal activities more effectively.
  • The Apiwtxa Ashaninka are heavily involved in all aspects of decision-making and implementation of monitoring. The groundwork for the project is largely complete, including an FPIC process for participation in the project, and the community has defined the indicators they want to monitor, adapted the icons of the Sapelli application to fit these indicators, and added voice recordings to some icons. Also, 14 monitors of different ages and levels of literacy have been trained in using the technology.
  • The project is at an early stage; monitoring began in January 2016. Further steps will provide training in information management, including making maps and sharing the information via email. The community itself will validate the data and the community leaders will take the decisions on data sharing. The monitoring plans are being integrated with a range of initiatives underway by the Ashaninka, including a major new grant that will fund greater surveillance of the territory.

This initiative aims to strengthen the protection of the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory, home to the Apiwtxa community of Ashaninka people, in the state of Acre, Brazil.

The Ashaninka are one of South America’s largest tribes, totalling around 100,000 people. Their homeland covers a vast region, from the Upper Juruá River in Brazil (where this initiative takes place) to the watersheds of the Peruvian Andes. The great majority of Ashaninka live in Peru; the Apiwtxa community is the largest in Brazil, with around 800 people.

As of April 2016, the project is at an initial stage of implementation: patrols to monitor illegal hunting, fishing and logging began in January 2016. Further training will focus on how to visualise and analyse the data, for purposes defined by the community. The Apiwtxa monitoring initiative is a first for the Ashaninka people, and other communities may be able to learn and benefit from it as it becomes embedded.

The initiative uses an icon-based smartphone application (called Sapelli), which makes it easier for communities who live in remote areas and who have low levels of literacy to perform monitoring activities. Sapelli does not require network coverage for data collection. Community members have begun to monitor illegal activities in their lands by invaders; this will mostly focus on illegal logging, hunting and fishing.

The initiative is supported by part of the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group of the University College London. It fits within ExCiteS’s broader objective to involve people living in remote areas of the globe and enable them to participate in scientific research that is of their interest. It is carried out by a Brazilian ExCiteS researcher, Carolina Comandulli, who provided information for this case study. The NGO Comissão Pró Índio do Acre assists with data visualisation activities and purchased some equipment.

International Forest Agenda/s 
Monitoring Theme/s 
Natural resources

The Ashaninka monitor evidence and indications of illegal natural resource use, namely:

  • Illegal fishing: evidence such as presence of fishing boat, fishing camp, fishing equipment, fishermen. Reported incidents of illegal fishing. Location of illegal fishing vessel and fishing camps.
  • Illegal hunting: evidence such as footprints, hunting dogs, hunting camp, hunter. Reported incidents of illegal hunting. Location of illegal hunting and hunting camps.

Further information can be captured in the camera and voice recorder function, such as the owner and name of an illegal fishing vessel.

Deforestation drivers

Illegal logging:

  • Evidence such as fallen tree, logs, chainsaw noise, loggers' boat, logging camp.
  • Reported occurrence of illegal logging.
  • Location of illegal logging.

Policy context

In the 1980s, large-scale, mechanised timber extraction brought disastrous consequences for the Ashaninka and their environment in Brazil and Peru. Huge numbers of cedar and mahogany trees were felled, and the Ashaninka faced disease and exploitation. Contacts and conflicts with the non-indigenous population profoundly and negatively affected their social organisation, including along the Amônia River.

Progressively, the Brazilian Ashaninka of the Apiwtxa community organised to defend their rights. Sustained advocacy led to the declaration of the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory in 1992. This covers 87,205 ha in the far west of Acre State. Most of the Apiwtxa community live in a single village, with a few families scattered along the Amônia River. As is the case with all demarcated Indigenous Territories in Brazil, the land belongs to the state, but indigenous peoples have exclusive usufruct rights over them. Since the demarcation of the territory, the Ashaninka have their land rights recognised, but outsiders still invade the forest for illegal logging, hunting and fishing.

Pressures also cross the border from Peru, where the great majority of Ashaninka people live. A strategic community decision placed one Apiwtxa family at the border, to protect the land from the greater levels of resource extraction prevalent in Peru. Most Peruvian Ashaninka live in 353 titled territories, but they face intense exploitation of natural resources and severe threats within and outside these areas: in 2014 four community leaders were murdered, including the prominent activist Edwin Chota from the Saweto community, just over the border from Apiwtxa. In the months after the murders the Saweto community was finally promised land rights over 78 000 ha; this incident and its implications are described here.

The region is also a drug trafficking route, with cocaine produced in Colombia and Peru entering Brazil through the region’s rivers. The Ashaninka have always rejected offers for active or passive collaboration with trafficking activities, which require intervention by the relevant government agencies. (Click here for key facts on the Ashaninka.)


Community participation

The monitoring is a collective strategy of the Ashaninka from Apiwtxa, one of various ways in which they protect their territory and culture. One of the core principles is that the community drives all stages of monitoring, from setting the priorities to data analysis, and that the final results are for their benefit. The partnership with ExCiteS began with a process to establish free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), with discussions of the local interest in participating in the project; the problems they want to address (so that the framing of the problem was done by the community and not by the researcher); and the risks and benefits of participating.

The Apiwtxa community appointed 14 forest monitors, who have participated in the training. All but one of the monitors are male. Their ages range from 17 to 42, with a mix of both literate and illiterate members, and they have varied roles within the community: teachers, health agents, agroforestry agents, and good hunters. They speak Ashaninka and have basic knowledge of Portuguese. Four of the monitors are also learning how to look after the equipment and transfer data from the phone to the computer. Future training in GIS will enable the community to visualise the data for themselves.

As of April 2016, there have been four periods of training (one per month). The monitors have been learning to adapt the software and use the smartphones, including a three-day camping expedition on their territory for practical exercises. The Ashaninka have adapted the Sapelli software to fit their needs; for example, a community member redrew the icons (representing the indicators in the tabs above), so that these could be fully understood by the monitors.

Ashaninka training communities
Training communities

Future training will be provided as needed, including on how to visualise information on maps and send information via e-mail. The aim is that the community will be fully involved in analysing the information and managing the project. They will also make their own decisions on how and with whom they want to share the data, and for what purpose.

Monitors are not remunerated, as they do this activity as a part of being active community members. They traditionally monitor their territory on a regular basis, and are now integrating the technology in the process. The project aims to facilitate an activity that the Ashaninka already do, rather than create new burdens.

Monitoring methodology

The specific methodology and technological tools were developed through a three-step process. The first was the process of FPIC, the second was participatory development of the software, and the third was to develop a monitoring protocol, which sets out the roles and responsibilities of the partners in project implementation. This clarifies the role of government and NGO partners, including the level of training and technical assistance that the Ashaninka will receive from ExCiteS.

In accordance with the protocol, monitoring will take place within Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Territory on two occasions: first, during group patrols that will take place every two months; and second, individual monitors will take the smartphones with them during their regular subsistence activities, including those far from the village. This should increase the number of data collection instances.

The monitors use the smartphones to record illegal hunting, fishing, logging and land invasions within the Indigenous Territory. The indicators are listed in the tabs above, such as boats on the river, fishermen, abandoned equipment, logging camps, logs, the sound of chainsaws, trails in the forest, hunting dogs and hunters in action. This monitoring complements other surveys that can take place through projects in the Territory; for example, an initiative to support agroforestry and fishing uses household surveys to collect data on these subsistence activities, on sales of crafts to the Ashaninka cooperative, and basic demographics of the population.

The community was keen for the protocol to include measures to reduce risks, not least given the recent murders of Ashaninka in Peru. The community decided to protect the identities of monitors, emphasise educating neighbouring communities to discourage people from entering their land for illegal purposes, and the monitors should avoid confrontation with illegal resource users. However, it is impossible to eliminate risks of monitoring – a topic explored further in this blog.

The protocol makes clear that the all data that is collected should remain with the communities. Apiwtxa leaders takes the decisions on data sharing on a case by case basis, including on the best strategy to respond to illegal invasions of the territory (e.g. who to notify and how to disseminate information). On each occasion they will decide which actors they want to share data with, be it with the partner NGO, government agencies, or others. The ExCiteS team is able to use general information about the project, including to improve the technology.

Digital technology

The main technological tools for monitoring activities are smartphones, using the icon-based Sapelli software. The communities modified Sapelli in order to make it suitable for their needs and understanding, both by changing the icons and adding voice recordings in Ashaninka to some icons, so that they can long-click on the icons to hear the explanation. Much of this work to adapt the technology is complete, though ExCiteS is working to create a more user-friendly interface for transferring data to the computer, in response to feedback from the monitors during training on data transfer.

Ashaninka Sapelli icon hunt camp
Sapelli icon for a hunt camp

Data collection can be carried out without an internet/mobile network. Data submission, however, requires a network connection. There is an unstable internet connection at one spot in Apiwtxa and no network coverage, but it is possible to reach coverage within three hours from the community. As of 2016, the community internet connection has been sufficient. The plans for data management and data analysis involve the active participation of community members, and do not require network connection. In addition, an automated transmission system is being developed to transmit information via sms. Encrypted data can be automatically sent to another phone (within an NGO or government office), once phones reach internet connection.

The monitoring equipment includes smartphones, binoculars, solar panels, and Japanese ‘pan chargers’, which charge phones using heat energy.

Accuracy of data

The expectation is for community members to validate data themselves, after they are trained on how to visualise it on maps and tables.


The initiative aims to keep costs low. There are logistical costs, such as the food and fuel of the researcher going to the village and staying there, organising the meetings and buying basic materials (paper, pens, coloured pencils). The technological costs are the smartphones, a computer to enter the data, sources of energy to charge the phones and the computer, costs of SMS (in case the project chooses to use the data sender alternative). For the reasons described above, there is no payment to the monitors. Apart from that, the initiative does not involve further costs, and the hope is that it will be run autonomously by the community.

Source of funding

The funding comes from an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant given to the Extreme Citizen Science research group. In addition, the Comissão Pró-Índio do Acre bought the smartphones and a computer.

In 2015, the Apiwtxa Ashaninka received a major grant from the Amazon Fund, administered by the National Development Bank (BNDES). This is the first such grant directly between the Amazon Fund and an indigenous group, without intermediaries such as NGOs. The grant sets up the three year Alto Juruá project, to benefit not only the residents of the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous territory, but also just over 600 inhabitants of the neighbouring Kaxinawá Ashaninka do Rio Breu Indigenous Territory and fifty communities in the Alto Juruá Extractivist Reserve, and offer training to six Ashaninka communities in Peru. This has three programmes, on agroforestry (including fruit pulp marketing), territorial and environmental management, and strengthening community organisations.

The ExCiteS monitoring work will be integrated with the territorial activities supported by the Amazon Fund: this grant provides a substantial boost, as it will mean that the Ashaninka can extend their efforts, not only with more expeditions but also constructing three surveillance points at key locations in the territory, and equipping these with radios and a boat.

Achievements and challenges

The monitoring initiative got off to a strong start, putting in the foundations to enable monitoring to begin in earnest in 2016 with the first patrol, along the Arara River, which forms part of the frontier of the territory and provides access for illegal activities. The patrol met illegal hunters, and confiscated their game, explaining that hunting is not allowed on indigenous land. The Ashaninka also used the patrol to visit neighbouring communities, where they explained the monitoring programme, the plans to build surveillance points, and the rules around indigenous territories.

While this first patrol was successful, it also demonstrates that dangerous situations can be difficult to avoid and monitors can find it hard to implement agreed risk mitigation measures (described above), especially when using monitoring to protect their land.

As with many monitoring projects using technology, it is a challenge to ensure that the new skills really become embedded in the community, and that people have the confidence to continue the monitoring autonomously during their subsistence activities. In the early stages monitors tended to charge and use the smart phones only with direct encouragement from ExCiteS. In order to address this, the protocol set out the training that ExCiteS will provide to increase their skills and confidence, and the regular practice expected of monitors.

In order to overcome potential language barriers, simple language was used and some Ashaninka acted as facilitators and interpreters.

The monitoring draws on the strong social organisation of the Apiwtxa Ashaninka, whose achievements include the establishment of the Yorenka Ãtame Centre for Forest Knowledge in the municipal capital (to share traditional knowledge with the indigenous and non-indigenous population); projects for agroforestry, reforestation, and sustainable management of fish; the Ayonpare crafts cooperative; and the development of a protocol to guide discussions with potential partners around environmental services.

While this initiative is led by the Apiwtxa and focused on the Indigenous Territory in Brazil, it also strengthens the links with Ashaninka in Peru. There are trans-border movements between communities, with some Ashaninka speaking both Portuguese and Spanish. The project coordinator and Apiwtxa leaders crossed the border to discuss the ways that monitoring could strengthen the protection of Ashaninka lands in Peru. The partnership built via this initiative also helped the Ashaninka secure funding for the First Binational Congress of the Ashaninka People from Peru and Brazil, and for a journey that enabled Peruvian Ashaninka to take their Brazilian counterparts to visit Peruvian sacred sites for the first time, shown in this video.