Covering more than 2 million miles of land in South America is the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon rainforest. The largest portion of the Amazon rainforest runs through Brazil. More than 40,000 known species of plants can be found here. There are also more than 2,500 animal species and 2.5 million species of insects that call the Amazon home. There are currently about 500 indigenous settlements throughout the Amazon rainforest. The plants, animals, and indigenous tribes of the Amazon create a delicate balance that supports life on Earth. The vegetation of the Amazon rainforest creates a carbon sink and produces an estimated 6% of the planet’s oxygen.
Unfortunately, since the 1960’s, the Amazon rainforest has been dwindling. By 2018, nearly 17% of the rainforest had been destroyed, dangerously nearing what experts believe is the point of no return before large parts of the rainforest become a degraded savanna. At one point, the rainforest was aggressively deforested to make room for farms and grazing grounds. While the rainforest is rich in plant life, the soil is not suited for long lasting crops. Soil for productive farming is only stable for a few years at a time, driving farmers to continuously cut down and burn forest land to make room for farmland. There was also a desire to develop roadways and fossil fuel digging sites. In 2019, the Amazon rainforest suffered through record breaking wildfires, many of which were intentionally and illegally started.
For years, conservationists have been working to preserve the rainforest, the largest of these organizations being the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In 1992, the nonprofit organization Kanindé Association for Ethno-Environmental Defense was established to assist the indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe that resides in Rondônia, one of Brazil’s 26 states. Kanindé’s goal is to support the Uru-eu-wau-wau people in protecting their lands from deforestation, something that the tribe would not have had the resources to do on their own. In response to the 2019 Amazon wildfires, Kanindé partnered with the WWF to train members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau to use drones to monitor the parts of the rainforest they inhabit.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau have remained mostly isolated from the world in their territories, which are protected lands that cover over 7,000 square miles of the rainforest. Navigating and monitoring their lands from outsiders through their traditional methods has not been successful. Kanindé was able to convince some tribe members that the best way to protect their lands from deforestation was with the use of modern technology. With the help of the WWF 19 drones were donated for tribe members to use. Kanindé then recruited members to be trained in how to use the drones. 28 year old Awapy Uru-eu-wau-wau is now the head of the forest surveillance team using the drones.
Awapy and representatives from 5 other tribal communities were amazed at how quickly they were able to use the drone. Being able to see their forest from above brought them a whole new level of respect for the land they depend on. On the first day they sent the drone up to monitor lands, they found a completely deforested plot of land they had not known about. The drone showed them a perfectly cut out rectangle of land, roughly the size of 2 football fields, that had been scorched by illegal loggers. If it weren’t for the drone, it is quite possible that the Uru-eu-wau-wau would not have found this land until it was too late to do anything about it.
With the drone, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people can track and monitor illegal activity from a safe distance and have access to the right people who can take care of the situation. As Felipe Spina Avino, senior conservation analyst for WWF-Brazil explained, “They can put together a case with a lot of evidence that they can send to the authorities who then have much greater pressure and much greater resources to act on the illegal activities that are taking place.” With the drone footage Awapy collected on that first day he was able to send GPS coordinates to officials who latter spotted a helicopter spreading seed for cattle grazing over the deforested area. The officials were then able to further investigate the illegal activity.
While Avino said that the teams that have been trained to use the drones “really accepted the technology with open arms and quickly started using it”, it hasn’t come without some controversy. The Uru-eu-wau-wau are people who still live through primitive traditions. They are hunters and gatherers who use hand made weapons and tools, living off of and cherishing the land. For many, the use of technology and drones goes against their basic principals. Awapy said that he and his family have even received death threats from those who do not support the drone program, both from indigenous tribes and illegal loggers. But that has not dismayed him from continuing to use the drones to protect the rainforest. “Nature is everything to us,” Awapy said. “It’s our life, our lungs, our hearts. We don’t want to see the jungle cut down. If you cut all of that, it will definitely be warmer, and there will be no rivers, no hunting, and no clean air for us.” With the use of drones, the people who have tried to protect the rainforest for generations will now be able to better reach those goals.