PORTO VELHO, Brazil: Pedro Agamenon is worried about the land of his indigenous Arara people in the Amazon.
Deforestation and fires are endangering large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Agriculture is encroaching fast.
“Our people have often allowed invaders to conquer their land,” says Agamenon, who is a cacique, or chief. “But the territory we live in today, we preserve.”
The Arara have now started using aerial drones to monitor and protect the land, thanks to a course offered by an NGO.
Agamenon came some 400 kilometres from the indigenous territory of Igarape Lourdes to the city of Porto Velho to see how members of the Arara and other ethnic groups are learning about using drones.
The course is offered by the Kaninde Association which represents the concerns of indigenous people and acts to protect the rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon.
The three-day course, taught in Portuguese, is offered with the backing of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The 15 participants, who all come from different indigenous groups, will spend eight hours a day learning how to use drones to take measurements, evaluate images and monitor their territory themselves.
“The aim of the course is for the indigenous people themselves to be able to record intruders and environmental crimes such as illegal gold prospecting, deforestation and fires,” says Kaninde coordinator Israel Valle.
The area in the south of the Amazon under particular threat from deforestation and fires.
Ane Alencar, scientific director of the Environmental Research Institute of Amazonia (IPAM), saw evidence of land grabbing during a recent flyover, with public land occupied for grazing cattle and agriculture.
Critics say Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is creating a climate that encourages such incursions.
“We are sad because our government and our president are trampling on our rights,” says Agamenon.
At the course Josias and Bitate, of the Gaviao and Uru Eu Wau Wau groups respectively, watch closely as others handle the drones, then try and fly them themselves.
The course participants include women, such as Shirlei from the Arara people.
The fight for the land is also a fight for identity.
Josias and Bitate come clad in jeans, use mobile phones and ride motorbikes. But their home is an indigenous village, and otherwise they spend their time swimming in the river, hunting and fishing.
“The land means everything to us indigenous people,” says Bitate, who has taken on a leadership role even at the young age of 21.
Indigenous groups are taking an active role in combatting the environmental crisis.
There is “no solution to the climate crisis” without indigenous peoples, says umbrella organisation Apib. Indigenous peoples are the best “guardians of the forest”, according to studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization and others.
Where they have guaranteed rights over their land, much less deforestation takes place than in other areas.
The deforestation therefore is not just an national issue for Brazil.
The Amazon, which had been one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks, is now a net emitter of carbon dioxide, according to a recent study. It therefore plays a key role in the world's climate.
“The drone has made it much easier to monitor our territory,” says Bitate, who runs the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Association.
The drones are helpful in enabling users to monitor the most remote areas.
“Before, we used satellite information, which was always a bit late. By the time we got to the site, it had often burned down,” says Kaninde coordinator Valle.
Now, the images and information drones gather can speed up reports and provide much-needed evidence of forest destruction.
The drones have also improved security for indigenous inhabitants. When they see a deforested area, they no longer have to go themselves to investigate in areas where they risk confrontations with armed loggers.
“Young people should learn that they can defend our rights without having to risk their lives,” says Agamenon. – dpa