Using Drones In Ecuador to Protect Indigenous Land

In 1989, American billionaire philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman established the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the Green Nobel. The prize is awarded to grassroots activists committed to protecting the environment from each of the world’s 6 geographic regions. A recording of this year’s recipients was aired on May 25, 2022. The winners were Nallei Cobo of the United States, Marjana Minnesma of the Netherlands, Niwat Roykaew of Thailand, Julien Vincent of Australia, Chima Williams of Nigeria, and Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez of Ecuador. All of this year’s winners fought to make permanent legally supported changes to secure the protection of the environment.

For Alex and Alexandra, their mission was to protect their ancestral territory of the Cofán of Sinangoe from a gold mining rush. At the headwaters of the Aguarico River, the Cofán, an indigenous nation of only 1,200 people, have called the 1,500 square miles of the Ecuadorian Cayambe-Coca National Park their home for thousands of years. The land has remained mostly untouched by modern influences, boasting a biodiverse rainforest. The Cofán people base their way of life on the environment they live in. However, their land is under constant threat from illegal poachers, loggers, and miners.

Alex and Alexandra both established community patrols to protect their home from illegal activities. In 2017, Alexandra’s patrol group started noticing makeshift mining camps in some of the more remote reaches of the rainforest. Not long after, the group found larger, more substantial mining sites with heavy machinery for mass mining production. “Upon further investigation,” states their Goldman Prize bio, “they learned that the Ecuadorian government had issued 20 large-scale mining concessions with 32 more concessions pending. The concessions were granted in Cofán territory on the periphery of the national park—without informing or consulting the community.”

Alex and Alexandra immediately called upon their community to take action. But, they knew that to have lasting impact, evidence of the illegal mining needed to be gathered. While patrols help to deter poachers, the mining sites were often inaccessible or too risky for people to spy on. Alex and Alexandra had trail cameras set up and purchased a small, inexpensive drone to document the miners. With the drone, the patrol teams were able to gather meticulous evidence of the illegal activities.

With this evidence, Alex and Alexandra had what they needed to protect their ancestral lands. By 2018, Alex and Alexandra led their community in filing a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government “for violating their rights as an Indigenous community and illegally granting mining concessions without free, prior, and informed consent,” as stated in their bio. “Technology was crucial,” said Alexandra, “because it helped us to tell the judge that we were not lying because we had photos and videos.”

After a nearly year long legal battle, the drone footage proved to be of extreme value. The judge could not deny the evidence and granted the Cofán a landmark victory. The judge’s ruling sets that 79,000 acres of what would be prime mining land along the Aguarico River would be forever protected as ancestral land. “They didn’t pay any attention to us, they didn’t respect us, so we decided to get organized and put up a fight,” Alex said. Drones gave Alex, Alexandra, and the indigenous Cofán a voice that was heard by the court, and now, the rest of the world.

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