The Tribe With the DIY Spies

The nation of Guyana sits on the north edge of South America, with the Atlantic Ocean on its northern border. It is home to about 750,000 people and a lot of trees. According to the Rainforest Foundation, approximately 87% of the country is covered in forests, making Guyana “one of the most heavily forested countries in South America.” But that claim to fame is at risk. Also per the Rainforest Foundation, “between 2001 and 2019, Guyana lost 205,000 hectares of tree cover, or 1.1% of total tree cover,” with little signs of slowing down. Part of the issue: illegal logging is rampant. But to stop illegal logging, you need to catch the loggers. And that can prove difficult.

Unless you have YouTube.

The Wapishana are an indigenous tribe to the area, with about 6,000 people living in Guyana and another 9,000 or so in Brazil. Generally speaking, the Wapishana do not interact much with other cultures, preferring to keep outsiders at bay. When it comes to illegal logging, though, there’s a slight exception. The Wapishana aren’t able to combat the practice themselves; they need the Guyanese government to enforce the laws that protect the forests that the Wapishana call home. 

But before the government would act, the Wapishana needed to bring proof: evidence that these forests were, indeed, under assault. So,  members of the tribe began cataloging deforestation. Most of that came in the form of interviews with tribal elders, who had seen, first-hand, the trees disappear before their eyes. So in 2014, they came up with a new idea: they decided to build a drone.

As Quartz reports, the Wapishana took to YouTube, learning from do-it-yourself drone aficionados to piece together a solution. With assistance from Digital Democracy (an organization that “works in solidarity with marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights”) and a camera donated by GoPro, they were able to build a tiny spy plane. Of course, being a tribe in a remote, rural area of Guyana does make the drone program difficult. Creativity is critical. As Quartz further notes, “being able to fix the drone—having both the technical knowledge and materials to make it work—was key to keeping the project firmly rooted in the community. If the Wapichan want to keep the drone [. . . ] aloft, they need to be able to fix it with whatever materials they can find in South Rupununi, such as plastic crates and glue.” 

The device, called “Kowadad” (which translates to “Osprey”), can monitor thousands of hectares that are otherwise difficult to reach. And while it’s a useful step toward a solution, the evidence captured by it isn’t enough, in and of itself, to prevent illegal logging. To stop the logging, the Wapishana need the government to act.  As recently as a few weeks ago, the government once again pledged to crack down on the practice, but corruption (Guayana doesn’t have a great track record there), combined with the difficulties in preventing illegal logging in rural areas in the first place, makes it hard to stem the tide. But in any event, the DIY eyes in the skies are a step in the right direction.

Bonus fact: The Wapishana can access YouTube even when they’re rather remotely located. And that’s because, as Popular Science noted in 2017, “parts of the rainforest boast remarkable mobile phone service. Cell towers abound, even where roads and power lines are scarce. Locals can make calls and send texts from the outskirts of the forests” — which, not so coincidentally, is “where illicit loggers do their work.” And that gave an engineer named Topher White an idea: he used old cellphones as a makeshift listening device. Using solar power cells and some custom software, White’s phones can detect the sound of chainsaws and immediately notify authorities. And yes, it works. PopSci continues:

On a subsequent trip to Indonesia, White installed a handful of cell phones around a gibbon reserve. The phones would notify park rangers when they heard the putter of chainsaws. Shortly after setting up the system, White received an email notification from one of his phones. He told the rangers, who followed the faint sound of a chainsaw through the woods. They caught a band of loggers [in the act].

The technology, like the efforts of the Wapishana and their drones, is still at its earliest stages, but again, it’s a step in the right direction.

From the Archives: The Drones With Brains of Their Own: This one is for the birds.