How Panama’s indigenous peoples are using drones to save the rainforest

Drones are becoming an increasingly important tool in combatting deforestation.

Alexander Lees/Reuters/File
The Brazilian Amazon accounts for 40 percent of the world's rainforest.

In Panama, indigenous tribes are turning to a modern tool to help protect their homes: drones.

Vast rainforests, which once covered more than half of Panama’s land surface, are shrinking – eaten away by development, both official and unofficial. Forest land is becoming mines, hydroelectric projects, farmland, cattle habitat, and the site of illegal logging. 

In response, seven indigenous tribes, whose members live in autonomous zones known as comarcas, have begun sending up drones to keep an eye on their forests.

Three members from each tribe received a month of training on how to use the drones, Reuters reports. That included flight plan design, assembly, maneuvering, and image processing, reports the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Indigenous groups are running the program in conjunction with the Panamanian environmental authority, the Rainforest Foundation, and the FAO, a UN anti-deforestation program. 

The FAO believes the program will help tribes monitor watersheds, crop harvests, and forest fires by taking high-resolution images, among other data, that identify deforestation and other negative changes to forest cover.  

“These tools enable us to better know the forests' characteristics and resources we have in our territories,” said Eliseo Quintero, a representative of the Ngäbe-Buglé tribe, in a statement to Reuters. 

The Ngöbe-Buglé comarca, located in the western part of Panama, is both the country’s largest comarca and one of the two most affected by deforestation, along with Darien province along the border with Colombia.

The drones have proven especially helpful in monitoring areas where manpower is limited and the rainforest is vast. Last May, NPR reported that a Peruvian conservation group was using drones to survey and take pictures of a 145,000-mile swath of the Amazon that had come under pressure from illegal loggers and miners. 

Drones have fought deforestation another way, too: planting trees.

The Christian Science Monitor's Kevin Truong reported in September that the group BioCarbon Engineering, led by a NASA engineer, was using drones "in the entire three-step planting method. First, using mapping software to create accurate imaging of the prospective planting area. Second, actually planting the trees. And third, going back to monitor the progress and growth of their technological handiwork.”

And it's not a minute too soon. Panama loses about 50,000 acres (50,000 hectares) of rainforest annually, estimates ANCON, a Panamanian conservation association, while some 2 million hectares of land and water resources – an area the size of New Jersey – is degraded each year. Reforestation efforts have yielded about 75,000 hectares of secondary growth.  

Deforestation hurts the economy, too. In a 2014 study, the UN estimated that the damage to rainforest from 1999-2012 cost Panama about $3.7 million, adding that better stewardship could create jobs while producing more food and preserving watersheds and other natural resources.

Rosilena Lindo, head of the Climate Change Unit of the Ministry of Environment of Panama, called the drone monitoring system "part of our country’s commitment to address the adverse effects of climate change."

She said the country hopes to increase the carbon absorption capacity of its forests by at least 10 percent, or more with international financial support.

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