Panama's indigenous tribes launch drones to fight deforestation

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous people in Panama are using drones as a new weapon to monitor deforestation on their lands as thousands of hectares disappear every year in one of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests, the United Nations said.

More than half of Panama is covered with tropical rainforest, home to various indigenous groups who rely on the forests to survive.

“The main objective of monitoring with drones is to identify changes in specific points of the forest cover,” the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The monitoring is carried out in areas under deforestation and degradation pressure, which are only observable with high resolution spatial images.”

Indigenous people make up nearly 13 percent of Panama’s population of 4 million, with about 200,000 living on autonomous tribal lands, known as comarcas.

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

Panama’s indigenous groups first started using drones to monitor their ancestral lands last year, the FAO said.

The current FAO drone project began in February and is being carried out through the U.N.’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Programme (UN-REDD), in partnership with Panama’s environment ministry and the non-governmental Rainforest Foundation.

The project focuses on seven ethnic tribes in Panama. Up to three representatives of each tribe, including women, are trained to use drones, download and interpret images, produce detailed maps and collect data.

The project’s first drone flight was last month, the FAO said.

Drones can be used year-round and can also help indigenous groups to monitor forest fires, crop harvests and water sources, it said.

Giving indigenous groups tools like drones to help them protect their forests is also one way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions caused by deforestation, the FAO said.

For Panama’s indigenous groups, like others in the world, forests are a key source of water and food.

Panama loses about 20,000 hectares each year to deforestation, according to the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON), a Panamanian non-profit.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean nearly 2 million hectares of rainforest disappear every year, largely due to illegal logging, the FAO says.

Since the 1980s Panama has introduced legislation to protect indigenous rights and land, including a 2008 law that gives indigenous communities living outside the comarcas the right to request official recognition of their lands.

Still, the report said swathes of indigenous lands have been lost, taken over by hydroelectric dam projects, private mining companies and cattle ranchers, and destroyed by illegal loggers who cut down precious timber such as redwood and mahogany.