Indigenous people use drones, GPS and apps to protect the forest

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Almost every month, Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, 22, leaves the Jamari village and walks into the Amazon rainforest with 29 other indigenous people, both men and women. They take drones and GPS devices to help them monitor as much as possible of the 18,670 km² of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Land, in Rondônia.

Like them, many indigenous peoples in different parts of Brazil are learning to use modern technologies to fulfill the arduous task of protecting their territories — and the forest. If before they worked in collaboration with the Brazilian authorities responsible for inspection, now they say they are increasingly taking a leading role in the face of the growth of invasions and what they consider inaction by the State.

Bitaté is one of the two coordinators of the surveillance teams created to protect the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau IT (indigenous land), a kind of forest island surrounded by farms and historically coveted by land grabbers and loggers.

“Seeing deforestation from up there has an impact”, he says, remembering the first time he put a drone in the sky to monitor his territory, in 2020. “Wealth is on our side. On the other there is destruction.”

The Legal Amazon area —where the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau IT is located— lost almost 4,000 km² of vegetation between January and June this year. This is the highest deforestation rate for a first semester in seven years, according to Inpe (National Institute for Space Research).

“I am a defender of the environment. We are working to protect the forest, but seeing the trees being cut down and burned is very sad”, laments Bitaté.

With two drones provided by indigenist entities, the people who live in the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau TI have been able to quickly access remote areas and catch loggers more safely. They no longer need to risk going there to get the GPS coordinates: they now act discreetly while handling the drones. At a distance of up to two kilometers, they photograph and pass the complaint on without directly confronting the invaders.

The images are used to prove possible crimes to the Brazilian authorities and pressure them to act. The indigenous people also use GPS devices to georeference illegal activities carried out in the territory and, thus, try to understand how the invasions progress.

“They [os invasores] they start outside the indigenous land and get closer until they enter. It was like that with the loggers, and now they are going in looking for ore too. We are very concerned”, says Bitaté.

With the mission of defending the forest and its territories, over the years the indigenous people have learned to handle maps, communicate via satellite and, more recently, to use drones and artificial intelligence. For this they count on the support of projects carried out by NGOs and indigenists, who provide equipment and guidelines for using them.

WWF Brazil and the Kanindé Ethnoenvironmental Defense Association are some of these entities. When the country saw fire rates explode in the Amazon in 2019, they decided to start a project to monitor territories in a more organized way.

They then began to train indigenous peoples in the use of technologies to combat Amazonian emergencies. Since then, 25 monitoring kits, with drones and GPS, have been donated in five states.

“They were able to quickly appropriate the technology, and we have expanded the project,” says Felipe Spina, a conservation analyst at WWF-Brasil.

In addition to drones, the work includes mobile applications to process data and send information to a central location. WWF also provides advice so that illegal acts are reported to Organs competent bodies. “Technologies multiply the monitoring capacity”, summarizes Spina.

Similar work was being carried out in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land by indigenists Orlando Possuelo and Bruno Pereira, the latter murdered just over a month ago in the region while working to combat illegal hunting and fishing in the territory that concentrates the largest number of peoples. isolated from the world.

When he disappeared along with journalist Dom Phillips, Bruno took photographs, videos and georeferenced information with which he intended to report crimes to the Federal Police. This material had been gathered by indigenous people from five ethnic groups in the region, in Amazonas. They had created the EVU, Univaja Surveillance Team (União dos Povos Indígenas do Vale do Javari) precisely to map invasions and obtain evidence that could supply the authorities.

The indigenous are divided into teams of 13 people and go to the field with drones and cell phones with applications capable of recording the coordinates of the invasion points with each photograph taken. Each step is accompanied by another team, which is at the base. All to monitor an area of ​​more than 85,000 km² in a region also marked by drug trafficking, on the triple border between Brazil, Peru and Colombia.

“We are talking about a territory the size of Portugal, where the government is unable to carry out effective inspections throughout its perimeter. So it is very important that the residents there, the Indians, act as informants, as watchmen”, explains Orlando Possuelo. , which carries out this training with the indigenous people.

“We don’t want [a TI Vale do Javari] become one of those indigenous lands that are totally degraded and destroyed by illegal action.”

That’s why the EVU has been preparing, from the information collected in the field in the cell phone application, to create a georeferenced map to understand how the invasions of the territory work. They are also developing an indicator that can show the effects of the surveillance team’s work.

Orlando says that since this project was started, in September of last year, it has not had the support of government agencies.

Indigenous people and indigenists see a scenario of weakening inspection bodies in recent years. The Bolsonaro government has enforced less than 3% of the country’s deforestation alerts, according to MapBiomas.

THE Sheet contacted Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio) to find out what has been done to protect indigenous lands, but got no response.

“There is little action by those responsible for combating deforestation in the Amazon. In this context, it is even more important that indigenous groups themselves have ways to monitor and try to defend their territories on their own”, says Felipe Spina, from WWF Brazil.

The indigenous Ubiratan Suruí, 29, says that teams of 10 to 15 indigenous people monitor the 248,000 hectares of the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Land, where the Paiter Suruí live, between the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso. They try to stop the encroachment of loggers, hunters and fishermen as they face the pressure of deforestation.

“We monitor our territory because, without it, people are mercilessly entering. The government has not fulfilled its role”, he criticizes.

They recently auctioned off artwork on NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens) to raise funds and continue surveillance expeditions. “The drone is a very useful tool for inspection. Before, we used to carry out surveillance activities, but we didn’t have images. Often the public authorities did nothing because we had no way to prove it”, he says.

Surveillance at the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Land ranges from the elders, who are traditional experts in the forest, to the younger ones, who have dedicated themselves to learning how to use new technologies.

“For us, the territory is sacred. It is an activity that will never stop. The threats only tend to get worse. We have to be strong and seek partners to help. We are not keeping the forest just for us, but for the world”, finishes Ubiratan.

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