Tom Ford explores how technology is aiding the battle against unlawful destruction of the Amazon.
Photo by Berend Leupen
Over the last few years, indigenous communities living in the Amazon rainforest in South America have increasingly been turning to technology to fight against destruction of the biodiversity hotspot by illegal loggers, miners, farmers and ranchers.
The rainforest is home to around 5 million of the world’s plant and animal species which, some of which only exist within its parameters. Along with indigenous tribes’ way of life, many of these species are under threat from deforestation. Last year, the world watched in terror as wildfires, likely caused by fires set by farmers to annihilate trees quickly, gripped the region, while June 2020 was the worst June in 13 years for Amazon fires.
This destruction has been going on for decades in other regions of Latin America too – since 2000, three of Central America’s five great forests have been reduced by more than 23%, with 90% of deforestation in the region fuelled by cattle ranching.
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On the Frontlines
The Amazon is not unoccupied, being home to hundreds of local communities spread throughout the rainforest who are ready to fight the destruction of their land. At the forefront of their tactics is technology, with photographs and video footage being used as evidence in court.
The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe, living in a remote corner of the Amazon, have begun using drones funded by the WWF UK as technology becomes more accessible and affordable. Trained by WWF Brazil and Kaninde Association of Ethno-Environmental Protection on how to operate the aerial cameras, they also have a laptop, HD camera, waterproof camera, walkie-talkies and a GPS.
Bitaté Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, 20 years old, coordinator of the Association of the Indigenous People, explained how the “arrival of technology, such as drones” helps monitor areas that people didn’t know had been deforested. “It also helps to have the real dimension of the invasion and destruction that is being practised within the indigenous territories”, he said.
It’s working too, as Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau drone operators discovered almost 500 acres being deforested on their reserve in January this year.
Why Turn to Tech?
Before technology was available to them, indigenous complaints against illegal takeover of their lands by companies looking to exploit the region’s natural resources fell on deaf ears. In Peru, for example, the Achuar, Quechua and Kichwa communities reported contamination of their main water sources in 2000. However, these complaints were ignored due to a lack of evidence and countered by data offered by the oil company responsible, Pluspetrol.
Things are changing though, with the photos and videos captured by indigenous groups which can later be used in court meaning that the authorities have to listen. The Cofán, living in the Sinangoe community on the outskirts of the Ecuadorian oil city of Lago Agrio, used drones, camera traps and satellite apps to keep watch of their land, while running an indigenous-driven media campaign to raise awareness of destructive mining practices. After detecting 52 illegal mining operations, they took the government to court for violating their right to a healthy environment, winning the trial in 2018.
On the 26th April 2019, the Waorani also won a legal battle against the Ecuadorian government, with the court ruling that “the Ecuadorian government could not, as it had planned, auction off their land for oil exploration without their consent”.
The equipment also allows indigenous groups and activists to monitor and impede deforestation without putting themselves in harm’s way in the face of a new wave of loggers and miners, a development that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and many State Governors support.
Indeed, the Tierra Resistentes (Land of Resistants) have documented a large number of assaults and even murders against people confronting loggers and miners. Ethnic minorities were found to be the target of 48% of violence cases, while a UN report found that, in 2014, three-quarters of all killings of environmental activists took place in Central and South America. Technology then is not just useful and effective, but can be lifesaving.
There remain obstacles, however. For instance, the remoteness of indigenous villages can cause problems. While four of the nine Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau villages in the Amazon have electricity, only one has Wi-Fi, which means that there is a long process to get drone and camera footage uploaded to the internet before it can be used as evidence in court.
Not all indigenous groups have access to this technology either, seriously hampering their efforts to protect their land. But with time, this should change, allowing governments to be held to account for the destruction of these areas.
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