How one Indigenous community uses high-tech tools to defend its territory

WWF providing drone training to communities. Pictured are people from the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory

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The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous people occupy an island of rain forest surrounded by farms in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Their territory is one of the most important in the region, valued for its rich biodiversity and freshwater sources. Since the 1980s, however, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have faced successive invasions by loggers, farmers, and land-grabbers. With deforestation in the Amazon at its highest rate in more than 15 years, their livelihoods and culture are at risk.

To illegally clear land in the Amazon, invaders often burn the forest, leading to wildfires. In the wake of the devastating Amazon wildfires of 2019, WWF collaborated with the Kanindé Association of Ethno-Environmental Protection to supply the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau with terrestrial monitoring equipment—including drones, smartphones, and camera traps—and field training to document illegal deforestation. The drones create high-resolution images, video, and GPS mapping data that allow the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to discover and record deforestation while avoiding unexpected and potentially deadly confrontations with illegal loggers and land-grabbers.

The tools and training were provided to other Indigenous peoples and territories with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The grant also allowed WWF to customize software, the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), to meet the communities' monitoring needs.

Aerial view of deforestation and fire in the Amazon Rainforest on land grabbing area surrounding the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Land

After identifying criminal deforestation through drone surveillance, members of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau register the crime in SMART. The information collected, organized, and mapped can be used by public agencies, nongovernmental organizations, or Indigenous organizations to aid the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in their fight against deforestation. Combined with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau's centuries-old knowledge of the area and its ecosystem, land surveillance technology has become an invaluable territorial protection and conservation tool.

The Territory,
a new film that premiered in August 2022, features the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau's novel use of these technologies, providing an intimate glimpse into the issue of deforestation on Indigenous land in the Amazon. Directed by Alex Pritz in close collaboration with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, the documentary won the Audience Award and Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and critics praised it as an exemplary product of collaborative Indigenous filmmaking. In the film, members of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community operate drones to locate sites of forest loss. Aerial footage captures the shocking contrast between lush rain forest and areas cleared for farmland. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau use this evidence to guide field patrols and inform law enforcement agencies of illegal activity.

During the pandemic, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau supplied the film team footage, which was incorporated into The Territory. The filmmakers provided camera equipment and remote training to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, eliminating the health risk of bringing in an external team. And importantly, this gave the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau greater agency in telling their story—to local authorities and the world. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau used the cameras to create videos to share their experience of isolating from COVID-19 in the rain forest and demand justice for one of their own.

Self-documentation is not only crucial to draw attention to the grave situation in Rondônia but also for the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to preserve their culture and control their narrative. The power of technology and films can shine a light on the world's most pressing issues, from the urgency of safeguarding threatened biomes to the rights of the Indigenous stewards fighting to protect them.