Technology Put To Good Use

A Wounaan forest technician inspects an illegal clearcut in Indigenous territory. CULLEN HEATER

Jim O’Donnell and Cullen Heater tell an essentially hopeful story from our neighbor to the south:

Panama’s Indigenous Groups Wage High-Tech Fight for Their Lands

With help from U.S. organizations, Panama’s Indigenous people are using satellite images and other technologies to identify illegal logging and incursions by ranchers on their territory. But spotting the violations is the easy part — getting the government to act is far harder.

On a blazing February morning, the Indigenous Wounaan territorial monitoring coordinator, two forest technicians, and a local farmer climbed into the mountains outside the fishing and farming community of Majé, near Panama’s Pacific coast. As they crossed the river, the farmer stopped and pointed up at an anteater in a tree. It was unusual to see this type of anteater here, he said — anteaters generally live higher up in the mountains, but deforestation has pushed them out of their natural habitat.

The Indigenous men were out to map a recent, illegal clearcut that had spread through the forest adjacent to the farmer’s land. The 27-acre cut was an encroachment on Wounaan territory by cattle ranchers originally from the Azuero Peninsula, a once-forested area now decimated by cattle ranching. Seeking fresh pasture, the ranchers were moving into traditional Wounaan lands.

The community had heard the buzz of the chainsaws. They had smelled the smoke from the burning land and the reek of chemical herbicides sprayed by the invaders. Wounaan technicians had used mapping software on their smartphones to pinpoint the site of the illegal land clearing they were now investigating. With this data, the Wounaan of Majé submitted a complaint to the Wounaan National Congress, which then filed a complaint with Panama’s environment ministry, known as MiAmbiente.

“I have hope,” said one of the technicians. “The way we monitor is more advanced now. We have monitoring technicians in the community now, and GIS specialists. We’re getting good at this.”

Obtaining reliable, on-the-ground information turns out to be the easy part, however. Although the deforestation monitoring technology of the Wounaan and other Indigenous groups in Central and South America is rapidly improving, getting governments to act on land-grabbing and deforestation is a major challenge. Indigenous leaders say that in Panama, for example, the national government frequently sides with businesses, ranchers, loggers, and colonizers, despite ample evidence that they are illegally clearing Indigenous land.

Since early 2021, the Wounaan have submitted eight complaints, or denuncias, to the Panamanian authorities, covering more than 300 acres of clearcuts in and around the Wounaan communities of Rio Hondo, Platanares, Majé, and Aruza. MiAmbiente quantified the damage at around $44,000. To date, three denuncias have proceeded to the point where MiAmbiente can serve summons and issue fines to colonizers. But, much to the Wounaan’s frustration, MiAmbiente has yet to take action.

“The government is corrupt, and they don’t understand or care about the Indigenous people,” says a community leader in Majé, who asked not to be identified for security reasons…

Read the whole article here.

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