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How Drones Could Help an Indigenous Community Fight Mining and Deforestation

The Wapichana community in Guyana is learning to use the tech to monitor the local area.

For hobbyists and activists, drones can be used for everything from vandalism to saving lives. For the Wapichana community living in a remote village in southern Guyana, they're also potentially a powerful tool against the threats of mining and deforestation.

The Wapichana are an indigenous group who live in the southern Rupununi savannas of Guyana, bordering Brazil. There are an estimated 6,000 Wapichana living in an area of rainforest and savannah spanning roughly seven million acres. Facing threats such as illegal logging, mining, and cattle rustling, the Wapichana are hoping that they'll be able to use drones to map and monitor land aerially.

"Sometimes when you walk in the gold mines it can be frightening if there are illegal miners there from Brazil," Timothy Isaacs, a member of the Wapichana monitoring team, told me. "We can also risk our lives monitoring along the border because there are rustlers there with high-powered rifles, whereas we have no weapons to defend ourselves."

Community monitors Angelbert Johnny and Timothy Issacs piloting the drone for the first time.Image: Gregor MacLennan/Digital Democracy

The Wapichana claims to regain their ancestral lands have been outstanding since 1969. To date, most is still classified as government land, open to mining, logging and cattle ranching.

According to Isaacs, who spends time monitoring both the gold mines and lands bordering Brazil, deploying drones as aerial monitors can cut risks faced by those exploring the area. The drones can monitor remote areas from above, and provide images back to the monitoring team's computer in real-time.

Collaborating with Washington-based non-profit Digital Democracy, the Wapichana monitoring team kickstarted their drone mapping and monitoring project back in October, building and flying their first UAV. Just last month, they completed the second phase of their project, which supported further flight tests. The project aims to not only bring drone tech to the Wapichana community, but also ensure that they can use and control the tech confidently themselves.

The community monitoring team technical coordinator Tessa Felix learning to solder the live camera view embedded in the front of the drone. Image: Gregor MacLennan/Digital Democracy

"We chose this area to experiment with using UAV technology because of the need to monitor and document deforestation activities in remote areas difficult to access by foot, but also because of the technical skills and dedication of the Wapichana monitoring team," explained Digital Democracy's program director, Gregor MacLennan, over email.

With MacLennan heading up the workshops, the local Wapichana monitoring team learned how to build a fix-winged drone from scratch. The team then mounted a GoPro onto the drone, which shot around 500 images of the Shulinab village along a pre-programmed flight path. Using Pix4Dmapper automatic imaging software, the team were then able to recreate a 3D model of their village from the images. The aim, explained MacLennan in a blog post, is to "create high-resolution up-to-date imagery at a fraction of the cost of satellite imagery."

The drone currently stays up in the air for about 30 to 45 minutes, and is capable of covering a distance of 50 miles before its battery life cuts out. Isaacs hopes that in the future, it will be able to stay in the air longer and cover greater distances.

The current drone project builds on past monitoring and mapping projects in the area. In 2013, Digital Democracy collaborated with the Wapichana on a project using smartphones and an open source application called Open Data Kit, which is like a digital data collection form that allows the Wapichana to document any abuses that take place on their land digitally. It lets them provide maps to the villages to help with land management discussions, and collect more data for when they take complaints to the police or the government.

The use of the drone tech is still at an early experimental stage. MacLennan doesn't think it will replace on-the-ground monitoring just yet as the team is still learning how to fly and land its fixed-wing drone properly. He said, however, that drone tech opened up a different perspective, allowing the monitoring team to communicate their results to the rest of the villages and give them visuals of places, such as the gold mines, that they'd never seen before.

Since the start of the project, the tech has also been rapidly adopted by the community. "One of the greatest things has been the empowerment of the local team. Rather than the technology being this outside thing imported from the US, the people built this drone themselves, so there was a feeling of owning and fully controlling this tech themselves," said MacLennan.

Members of the community learn some piloting skills using the flight simulator. Image: Gregor MacLennan/Digital Democracy

Each member of the Wapichana monitoring team has adopted a different role in the project. While some take on the more mechanical and engineering roles by tying together cables, assembling parts, and repairing the drone, others look after the technical side of programming flight plans on the computer, and piloting and landing the drone.

"This technology was new to me," Isaacs told me, adding that he'd not even seen a drone before in Guyana. "But I learned that you could use this device to make monitoring easier."

Detailed maps could both help in their fight to regain ancestral territory, and to aid in land management discussions by helping villagers to understand their territory better.

Setting up a ground-station for mapping Shulinab village, powering the laptop off the pickup truck battery. Image: Gregor MacLennan/Digital Democracy

"In the future, we do hope we'll be able to continue using the drone to map the villages," said Isaacs, who noted that the villages were currently fighting the government for land extension rights. The drone, he explained, would allow monitoring teams to take GPS points from the air, and map the area where the villagers were proposing an expansion.

"As a young person growing up in the village, this project is important for our lands and our people," he added.