Helping Indigenous Communities in Panama Use Technology to Save the Rainforest

Panama does not officially have a share of the Amazon, but a share of rainforest if definitely has. The Darien jungle remains one of the most remote and inaccessible places on the planet: Panama’s “Darién Gap” is the only missing link in the Pan-American Highway, due to wild swampland and forest too costly – both financial and environmentally – through which to officially build.

Yet illegal logging and development threatens this land, and indigenous communities such as the Embera–Wounaa in Darien Province are fighting back. Supported by partners such as The Rainforest Foundation, these groups are using modern tools to protect the forest and its inhabitants.

With help from The Rainforest Foundation, drones are changing how indigenous communities in Panama take control of their lands and forests.

With help from The Rainforest Foundation, drones are changing how indigenous communities in Panama take control of their lands and forests. Photo: Rainforest Foundation site.

Guns? No – drones. In an initiative kicked off in 2015, with a second phases launched last summer, Rainforest Foundation and a national federation of indigenous peoples have been training local mapping teams how to fly fixed-wing and helicopter drones and manipulate sophisticated software that creates highly accurate maps to document incursions into their territories. This action not only gives a comprehensive, bird’s eye view of the illegal activities, cleared land, and other deforestation attempts: it allows indigenous communities to identify areas at risk, and areas already under attack, and alert/work with authorities without direct and dangerous confrontation – an act that has proven to be fatal one too many times.

This high-tech mapping initiative is great example of the Rainforest Foundation’s mission at work: helping indigenous people – those intimately connected to their ancestral lands – secure and exercise their legal right to protect the forests that we all depend on. Its a great investment and documented return: rainforests protected by Indigenous communities have the lower rates of deforestation than any other forests in the world including national parks, nature preserves, government land, and private sanctuaries. Louis Bacon‘s Moore Charitable Foundation is proud to be part of this bold and successful conservation effort. In the words of the Rainforest Foundation: “Indigenous communities right to their ancestral lands isn’t just the right thing to do, it is the most effective way to protect our rainforests.”

Read more about The Rainforest Foundation’s work to help combat illegal deforestation in an excellent and recent article by VICE magazine.

Technology Boosts Conservation to Map Land Invasions in the Panamanian Rainforest

The Darien rainforest lies in quiet, splendid beauty along the border of Panama and Colombia. Its animal and plant cohabitants represent an extraordinary variety of wildlife, with species as diverse as jaguars and orchids. The natural diversity has provided a rich and magnificent home for the indigenous Wounaan and Embera communities for hundreds of years. Although the remoteness and impenetrability of the forest has long preserved the natural order of this unique ecosystem, recent and increasingly widespread invasions by loggers, poachers, and farmers threaten its sanctity.

Encroachment began in 1987, when foreigners began to illegally occupy indigenous land. To protest such invasions and demonstrate these threats to the authorities, indigenous communities attempted to map their territories. However, the inefficient methods and independent nature of the communities afforded them little progress.

With support in part from The Moore Charitable Foundation, the Rainforest Foundation and the national federation of indigenous peoples in Panama (COONAPIP) have designed a training program for indigenous mapping teams, who will aid the native rainforest communities. Armed with drones and software, the teams create documentation and 3D maps to accurately convey information and prepare evidence of invasion. Illegal deforestation, agricultural waste, and illegal settlements are all made visible by the technology and thus can be reported to the government. Furthermore, teams provide technical support for communities seeking defense of their lands and help to create land management plans to promote sustainable economic development.

This cooperative effort between indigenous peoples, the Rainforest Foundation, and COONAPIP highlights the increasingly important connection between conservation and technology. Preserving ancient traditions and the health of exceptionally diverse wildlife has always been a priority— yet, as these organizations have proven, tangible results are often achieved through the use of advanced technology like drones and 3D mapping. The proper use of technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach conservation. Read more here.