The American state of Arizona is home to 22 Indian tribes, who now occupy a fraction of their traditional homelands. At various points in history these indigenous peoples by told by the United States government, “yes, of course this is your land, but  . . .”

Governments still use this statement today.

This year the Standing Rock Sioux tribe began protests after the U.S. Government awarded an easement to an energy consortium building a pipeline that would impact the Sioux reservation water supply. “Of course, the reservation is your land,” the government told them, “but we’re allowing this project to go ahead anyway.”

Nor do governments only use this statement with indigenous people or minorities. This month President Obama outraged the governor of the state of Nevada by declaring a large swath of land a federally protected National Monument. “We know it’s your land,” the President told them, “but we’re taking control of it.”

What recourse do these groups have when their land is appropriated?

One community in  Guyana adopted a novel response.

Extracted from:

Southern Guyana’s Wapichan community—one of nine indigenous groups in the country, numbering about 9,000 people—knew their forests were being invaded by illegal loggers and miners. But in order to compel the government to take action, they needed proof. So, beginning in 2003, they assembled an army of citizens to document their traditional lands. As technology evolved, so did their methods. At the start, volunteers trekked through the forest and interviewed the elders in far-flung villages, entering GPS coordinates and folktales alike into their smartphone records.

And then they built a drone.

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Watching YouTube videos for do-it-yourself instruction and collaborating with fellow drone creators, they used bowstrings to tie parts together and a lollipop stick as an impromptu drill.

Their drone confirmed what the Wapichan had long suspected: In the south, close to the border with Brazil, illegal loggers were harvesting trees in lands that were supposed to be protected. And the gold mine at Marudi Mountain, to the southeast of Shulinab, appeared to be leaching pollution into the headwaters upon which the Wapichan depend.

“We are hoping to get them to recognize that these maps will actually help the government to resolve issues,” Fredericks said.

Flight simulator training

I arrived in Guyana with a bag of foam, wires, glue and tools. The Wapichana monitoring team arrived, five men and one woman from villages throughout Wapichana territory. We worked under the leaf roof of the “benab” – the community house – and together learnt how to build a drone, from ironing laminate to strengthen the wings to soldering a live video transmission system.

I was amazed at how quickly the team learned, and their initiative at solving engineering problems with the limited tools we had available. When the motor mount broke, the team scoured the village for different types of plastic, and fashioned a new mount from an old beer crate. The drone was no longer a foreign, mysterious piece of technology, but something they owned, built, and therefore understood.

The Wapichana monitoring team have shown that a remote indigenous community with no prior engineering experience can build and fly a complex drone and make a detailed map. Our next step is to continue training to get the whole team comfortable with flying and to streamline the process from mission planning to processing imagery. Ultimately we want this to be a tool that the monitoring team can deploy at the request of the Wapichana villages. So far we’ve discussed using it to monitor deforestation of bush islands over time; creating high-resolution maps of villages to use as a basis for resource-management discussions; and flying over logging camps in the forest to document illegal deforestation.

The  Wapichan are an Amerindian group in South Guyana. This document was published by the Wapishana as a general framework for land-management and self-determined development. The plan’s three main aims are to support:

  • Wapichan leaders’ work to get rights to Wapichan territory legally recognised
  • Wapichan Village Councils to protect the land and natural resources that their way of life depends on
  • Wapichan communities to agree on how to use the land, for the benefit of the present and future generations

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The plan establishes monitoring committees to review mining and logging concessions on indigenous lands, and road building projects. It records current land uses and important cultural and sacred sites, and in this way represents a monitoring report from the community. The document includes maps of proposed extensions to their official land-rights, and proposals for how the community will respond to and interact with outside development proposals.

This is an eloquent and engaging narrative of the efforts of the Wapichan people of Rupununi, Guyana, to obtain title over their traditional lands, beyond the area they already own. A major element of their work to justify their land claim has been extensive mapping, combining GPS and modern technology with the knowledge of elders about the uses and significance of every creek and mountain. Regular patrols to monitor land invasions along their borders have had a deterrent effect, as illegal gold miners and cattle rustlers fear ‘monitors with smartphones’.

The years of work resulted in a series of agreements and proposals, brought together in this plan for the Wapichan land. The mapping project aimed to show the government how the Wapichan use the land that they claim, but so far there has been no response, and frustration is increasing. The document explains that logging and mining concessions create an urgent need for effective conservation, and bring social problems. There is a clash of cultures within villages, and a sense of flux as people leave to find work.

Photo by Thierry James Weber

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