Struggling for Decades

The Wapichan community, one of nine indigenous groups in Guyana, has been fighting against illegal logging and mining for some time now. Despite local and international knowledge of what has been going on in their forests, the tribe of 9,000 people has been unsuccessful in acquiring government support in protecting their lands.

Local leaders say only 15% of their rightful land has been granted to them since the 1977 titling of indigenous lands began, some of which have already been lost to illegal logging. Guyana has the world’s second highest percentage of rainforest cover, but sadly (as many experts note), it has one of the most corrupt governments in South America.

Technology to the Rescue

South Central People's Development Association

Hoping to obtain government support, the community worked on mapping and monitoring their land. DIY videos on YouTube and collaborations with other drone creators helped them make a homemade drone using scrap objects, such as bowstrings, plastic, and an improvised drill made out of a lollipop stick.

Material support from California-based organization Digital Democracy, a camera donated by GoPro, and open-source flight tracking software Mission Planner made it possible for them to build a fixed-wing drone which can fly a 50-kilometer (31.1-mile) distance, with a camera programmed to take an image every two seconds.

Their hard work paid off: Images revealed illegal loggers harvesting trees in the southern part of their (supposedly) protected forest and a gold mine that appeared to be leaking pollution into source waters essential to the community.

While this evidence gives their case a strong advantage, the battle for the Wapichan community is not over. To keep this operation going, they must maintain the drone with whatever resources available within South Rupununi.

The government’s alleged interest in opening another mining community in a site sacred to the Wapichan has the tribe even more concerned. So the ultimate fate of the forest remains suspect, but at least the drone is calling global attention to this issue.

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