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Flying high: Brazilian tribe keeps watch over forest with drones

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 March 2020 13:00 GMT

Bitate, from the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe, tests a drone at the Jamari village, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira

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Indigenous forest defenders are turning to technology to watch out for illegal loggers and others who threaten their land

By Fabio Teixeira

URU-EU-WAU-WAU TERRITORY, Brazil, March 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Visitors to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, an indigenous tribe living deep in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, must first request permission by email, which is printed out and hand-delivered to local leaders.

Yet while just one of the tribe's nine villages is connected to the outside world via precarious radio-based wifi, other technology is being deployed to protect their remote forests from invaders.

Nowadays, the hum of an aerial drone can be heard among the birdsong and distant roar of the Jamari River where the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau catch fish.

In a bid to detect land grabbers and illegal loggers, some of the tribe were trained last December to operate drones.

A month later, they put the drones to use and discovered an area of about 200 hectares (494 acres) being deforested in their reserve in Rondonia state, they told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The technology today, for territorial monitoring, is very worthwhile," said Bitate, a 19-year-old local leader who speaks Portuguese as well as the tribe's native language, Tupi Kawahib.

"Without a drone, that deforestation - which was already advanced - would still be unknown to us."

The tribe depends on the forest for their food, as well as gathering wild produce to sell in cities.

A recent haul of eight tonnes of Brazil nuts took 10 people about 30 days to pick, and generated about 2,500 reais ($550) per person, more than double Brazil's monthly minimum wage.

Since their first contact with the outside world in the early 1980s, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have slowly adopted modern technologies alongside their traditions.

Grid electricity now powers the four villages visited by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In one, Alto Jamari, a straw-roofed "maloca", a wooden hut where the community hang hammocks to sleep, was adorned with a flat-screen television and a fridge.

Most Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau still sleep in malocas, surrounded by grazing wild pigs and chickens, but a few now have beds in brick houses built by the state government on their lands.

An indigenous woman tests a high-definition camera at Aldeia Nova village, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira


The preservation of the Amazon rainforest is seen as vital to slow global warming, as trees absorb carbon dioxide - the main heat-trapping gas - from the air and store the carbon until they are cut down and burned, or rot.

But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed for development on indigenous lands, and last month presented a bill to Congress that would open up reserves for mining and commercial farming.

Last year, the Brazilian Amazon suffered its highest level of deforestation since 2008, according to INPE, the government agency tasked with monitoring the rainforest.

The loss of forests and fires set to clear fields for agriculture endanger the way of life of indigenous communities in the Amazon, anthropologists say.

Aerial drones have become an important tool for indigenous peoples in Latin America to monitor their lands, and are already in use by communities in Ecuador and Peru.

Drone deployment by indigenous people started about three years ago, when the devices became more affordable, said Jessica Webb, who manages global engagement at Global Forest Watch, an online monitoring service run by the World Resources Institute.

Drone use is likely to become more widespread as hurdles - such as their limited range of about 1 kilometre (0.62 miles) - are overcome, she said.

Non-profit groups and indigenous communities have discovered how effective drone images can be in raising awareness about the damage wrought by deforestation, she added.

"Seeing the extent of deforestation from above is much more impactful than standing in the middle of it," said Webb.

The images can also be submitted in court as evidence that an illegal activity took place.

And as internet connections improve in remote areas, drones could eventually be used to quickly alert state authorities to forest loss, said Webb.

An indigenous woman looks up at the drone she is operating at Aldeia Nova village, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira


The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau total only about 300 people, according to estimates by the Kaninde Association of Ethno-Environmental Protection, a local non-profit that works with the community and supplied them with two drones.

The tribe inhabits an area of more than 1.8 million hectares where other tribes, including three uncontacted ones, also live.

For the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, drone monitoring is a huge help because of the vastness of the territory they are struggling to protect.

In January, two weeks after spotting the deforested area via drone, they crossed a river and trekked for a day to see the devastation for themselves.

Such excursions are dangerous, and take time and planning, so the drone helps the tribe know what lies ahead, said Awapu, 28, who leads a group of a dozen people responsible for surveillance of the tribe's territory.

"It is vital for us. With it, we can even see if the loggers are armed," said Awapu.

When they arrived at the deforested site, they photographed a helicopter seeding it with grass, for cattle to graze on.

A member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe uses a laptop on the Aldeia Nova village, Brazil, February 18, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Teixeira

Awapu hopes technology might help them move quicker, as it is already too late once the trees have been felled and burned.

"We take pictures, and report it. In 10, 15 days, authorities go there. But then the damage is already done," he said.

The tribe said it had alerted FUNAI, Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, to the deforestation documented in January.

FUNAI did not respond to a request for comment from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Drones are not the only technology Kaninde presented to the community at a meeting last month.

Their arsenal now also includes a laptop, a high-definition camera, a waterproof camera, walkie-talkies and a GPS device.

But to upload images, they have to drive three hours to Jamari, where Bitate pays for wifi from his own pocket.

The plan is for each village to have at least three people capable of using the devices, said Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo of Kaninde.

The job mainly falls to younger members of the tribe, born after its first outside contact, to master technology as a way of protecting their land.

"Many of the older ones have no schooling. They don't even know how to use the internet," said Awapu.

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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