To combat illegal logging, this South American rainforest tribe built a DIY surveillance drone

A drone hovers above the rainforests of southern Guyana. Its previous takeoffs have been clumsy. In fact, it’s taken a few crash landings for the pilot to take control. But the homemade drone – built by members of a forest tribe using YouTube tutorials – eventually takes flight, relaying live video to the ground crew, on the look out for illegal loggers and miners who are encroaching on the tribe’s territory. 

With a population of about 9,000 members, the Wapichan community is one of Guyana’s nine indigenous groups. Guyana itself is a small South American nation of 735,000. Still, the country boasts the world’s second highest percentage of rainforest cover. Though the Wapichan tribe was well aware of the illegal logging and mining operations exploiting their traditional lands for profit, the Guyana government has been slow to act, according to a Quartz report. To compel the nation into action, the forest tribe had to find an innovative way to capture officials attention by documenting the illegal loggers and miners in action.

In 2003, the Wapichan mobilized a group of citizens to map their native lands. The citizen brigade used GPS to map isolated villages and smartphones to record the folk traditions of tribal elders. But ventures through dense rainforest proved demanding. 

Turning to even newer technologies to travel above the treetops, the Wapichan used YouTube tutorials to build a drone with bowstrings as tie downs and lollipop stick as a drill. The tribe received support from California-based organization Digital Democracy to create their GoPro-euipped, fixed-wing design, which maintains a range of 50 kilometers (31 miles). Drone-driven conservation specialist Lian Pin Koh advised the tribe. The craft enabled the Wapichan to locate and map illegal loggers to the south and a gold mine to the southeast that seems to be polluting waters the tribe depends on.

Despite international acclaim, including the Equator Prize awarded by the United Nations Development Programme, community leader Nicholas Fredricks and his team of DIY engineers have yet to receive a definitive response from the Guyanese government. They have however received word that the government may open another mining operation near a sacred Mapichan site called Blue Mountain. Nonetheless, the community says it will not give up, as tribe leaders continue to chase officials for meetings. “We are the guardians of the forest,” Fredericks told Quartz. “We will not stand for [its] destruction in the name of development.”

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