Documenting illegal land occupancy from the air
Nearly 70% of Panama’s remaining intact rainforest is governed by indigenous peoples. In 2015 some of these communities began using UAVs, with support from the Rainforest Foundation US and Tushevs Aerials (a small organisation that designs and builds UAVs and processes data into maps or digital 3D models).
Thsi article explains how the Emberá peoples of the Darien region used a custom-built fixed wing UAV to survey forest that had been illegally occupied by cattle ranchers. The communities’ leaders were shocked to find that over 200 hectares of forest had been converted: they had previously thought that only about 50 hectares had been lost. They had been unable to assess the damage before, as tensions with armed and confrontational settlers had prevented them from entering the area. Using the UAV allowed them to quickly and safely gather data that evidenced the trespass of their territories.
This experience generated further interest in UAV technology among indigenous communities in eastern Panama. Indigenous Wounaan used a UAV to prove that 10 hectares had recently been burned for cattle grazing in the middle of their territory, and submitted the UAV-generated documentation to the environmental authorities. In January 2016, Diogracio Puchicama, a Wounaan indigenous leader, reported that the authorities had been patrolling and most of the settlers had been at least temporarily removed. ‘I have been denouncing illegal loggers in Platanares for over five years, and the authorities have done nothing, not moved a finger,’ He noted. ‘Now, after they have realised that we have the drone, they are doing their job and enforcing the law. It’s a good sign.’