4.1. Lessons Learnt from Initial Experiences Using Drones with Indigenous Communities for Mapping and Monitoring Their Territories in Central and South America
On the one hand, it is clear at this point that drones have many potential benefits, which open up several opportunities for their wider utilization across indigenous territories in Central and South America. There are two aspects that we believe are key for indigenous peoples, namely the potential for producing up-to-date, high-quality maps, and the opportunities for cross-scalar political participation as a result of such maps, for instance in PES programs. Arguably, the capacity of drones to deliver extremely high spatial-resolution imagery at relatively low cost and (in theory) as often as desired is its biggest asset for indigenous peoples. As we have seen in all of the cases reported here, maps made from drones can enable indigenous peoples to accurately identify and locate environmental impacts such as spills, water pollution, fires or deforestation, as well as illegal activities by colonists who encroach on indigenous lands to engage in small-scale mining, cattle ranching or planting illicit crops. Therefore, accurately georeferenced drone maps have the potential to be used in court as evidence of environmental crime and/or infringement of indigenous rights (as evidence shows for Indonesia—See Radjawali and Pye [46
]). Similarly, drone maps may be pivotal to increase the presence of authorities to deter non-indigenous peoples from encroaching upon indigenous lands (as seen in the case of Panama). Land occupancy can be accurately documented too, which may better support indigenous land claims through rendering visible previously “invisible” people and their land (see [47
] for a specific discussion on this point). Hence, there is great potential for the creation of indigenous “neo-cadastres” (in the sense of [61
]) from volunteered geographic information generated by means of small drones.
Drone imagery creates new territorial representations, and therefore knowledge, that add up to the spatial knowledge that indigenous peoples possess about their territory. The implications of this new knowledge and the “right to look” of traditionally marginalized peoples [62
] are potentially far-reaching and may create rifts and conflicts within communities as well as between communities and corporations and the State [45
]. This would be the case, for instance, when powerful actors are exposed as parties to environmental crimes and become liable for them, which includes the State (as observed in the case of the Peruvian oil company causing and not cleaning a spill). Gaining drone-related skills (from building to flying and data processing), in addition to new geographic and environmental knowledge elicited from drone maps, may too increase the resourcefulness of marginalized indigenous peoples and thus help narrow the digital divide that exists between them and the wider national societies in which they live, which is an important aspect to reduce their situation of poverty and marginalization [1
We posit that the acquisition of new data, knowledge and skills from the utilization of drones in indigenous communities, together with the collaboration of cross-scalar allies (who are necessary to fund and deliver drone workshops and provide further assistance until indigenous trainees become autonomous) have the potential to play a key role in empowering disempowered indigenous communities toward achieving greater levels of territorial protection and justice. Resulting from such achievements, a fundamental issue could be the increase of opportunities for indigenous participation in cross-scalar environmental and territorial politics through their engagement in drone-based monitoring. At present, the advancement of REDD+ and other PES mechanisms in Central and South America may create avenues for indigenous participation in environmental conservation, which may in theory be tied to their cultural and territorial rights, and their involvement in these mechanisms should ease the inclusion of social considerations like poverty alleviation and equity [63
]. The importance of community-based monitoring in PES programs has often been highlighted [65
] and should constitute an important aspect of indigenous participation, which may include the adoption of drone-based approaches [44
], particularly if we consider the need to map and monitor degradation (the so-called “forgotten D”, given the difficulties to map it from conventional remote sensing imagery owing to insufficient spatial and temporal resolutions amongst several factors) [67
]. From the five projects presented in this paper, we know that all the indigenous peoples who attended the workshops are willing to engage in PES programs, particularly in REDD+, and that they now see the utilization of drones as an important tool which might make their forest monitoring activities more effective and, therefore, their participation in such programs more valuable. This situation should be similar for many other indigenous societies in Central and South America if they were exposed to drone usage within the context of their participation in PES schemes.
On the other hand, there exist many limitations and challenges that severely compromise the feasibility of indigenous drone-based monitoring approaches at present. Amongst them, we believe that digital illiteracy and poverty are the key aspects because they underlie the enormous difficulties to break off the dependency from external allies. In addition, hostile operating conditions in many environments, safety and ethical concerns, and an increasingly restrictive drone legal framework may all severely hamper an indigenous drone-based monitoring strategy in Central and South America.
Regarding constraints related to digital illiteracy and poverty, we do not envisage an entirely satisfactory solution in the short term. Many indigenous peoples in Central and South America have progressively embraced the use of new technologies, notably those pertaining to the realms of information and communication like social networks [69
], which allow them to access relevant information, connect and forge alliances with a panoply of actors, and more successfully engage in political advocacy. Thus, many participants in our workshops had smartphones and laptops, and were active users of social networks such as Facebook, a situation that is increasingly common even in isolated communities in the Amazon basin. Moreover, digital tools have progressively been adopted for conservation tasks [70
], including community-based monitoring. Therefore, communities that are becoming involved in conservation activities in partnership with the State, NGOs and/or academic research projects (like all the communities featured in this paper) are gradually becoming more familiar with contemporary technology.
Nonetheless, we believe that drone technology is still too complex to be fully appropriated by most indigenous communities in the short term, as are the GIS skills necessary to create georeferenced maps from drone imagery and to extract relevant digital information. In this sense, as several participants of the two workshops carried out in Peru put it, we need to “Amazonize” drone technology so that it can become truly useful in such a socially and environmentally challenging context. We argue that setting up drone schools that tailor to the specific needs of different indigenous peoples in Central and South America and that cover all aspects of drones (from building and repairing to flying, and from image processing to map creation) will be paramount to achieve effective, autonomous indigenous drone-monitoring programs in the near future. So far, the only experience that we are aware of is the drone school created by the Swandiri Institute in Indonesia [46
]. Unless such schools are created, or perhaps embedded in existing indigenous GIS labs [39
], drone workshops are bound to end up as one-off experiences.
At the same time, we hope that costs keep diminishing and that the availability of spare parts continues to increase, since these are two aspects that further aggravate dependency on external allies and therefore hamper the possibility of indigenous communities becoming autonomous drone users. In connection with advancing toward greater autonomy, we stress that many indigenous environments are extremely challenging in terms of flying drones [71
]. Of particular concern is the lack of electricity and Internet connection across vast swaths of indigenous territories in the region, which makes working with drones extremely difficult. Similarly, environmentally complex areas, including those with extreme, adverse, and persistent climatic conditions like heavy rain, thick fog or strong winds similarly render working with drones very difficult. This means that large areas in Central and South America, particularly in the rainforests of the Amazon basin and some in Central America, as well as many mountainous areas, notably in the Andes, are not well suited to the deployment of drones (at least yet).
As mentioned above, the safety of teams using drones for territorial monitoring is of great concern. In Central and South America, many indigenous peoples occupy large territories, even though their populations may be scarce [72
]. This fact, coupled with the typical absence of State authorities on the ground and widespread corruption, facilitates the entrance of illegal actors who often operate within indigenous territories [73
], sometimes turning communal land into private property through various mechanisms [74
]. Given that Central and South America are the most violent regions on Earth, where the majority of environmental defenders are killed every year (particularly in Brazil and Colombia but many also in Peru, Central America and Mexico) (see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2017/jul/13/the-defenders-tracker
), the deployment of drones across large areas that are controlled by illegal actors is very dangerous, if not impossible without incurring unacceptable risks. In addition, many ethical concerns remain in relation to the utilization of drones in indigenous communities, irrespective of their “well-intended” uses (e.g., biodiversity conservation—see [48
] for a detailed discussion about this point). A major related issue is the potential of conflicts within or between communities resulting from drone utilization [45
Finally, legal frameworks aimed at regulating civil drone use are becoming more restrictive [76
]. This means that indigenous communities may in many countries see the potential of drones drastically reduced. If, for example, drone flying altitude is restricted to around 125 m above ground level and distance must be kept within eye-sight, say less than 500 m, then it would become very difficult to document more distant problems in difficult to access terrain, such as the oil spill documented in the first workshop with a fixed-wing plane (in fact, under such regulations fixed-wing drones would be useless compared with multi-rotor drones, which are much easier to take-off, fly and land). Moreover, the potential for monitoring socially or environmentally unsafe areas would also disappear. This is for instance the situation in Mexico, where restrictions are further worsened because the use of drone maps with photogrammetric processing requires a government permit. This restriction is an enormous setback to indigenous peoples if they wish to claim land through neo-cadastres or file legal complaints based on drone imagery, for they are unlikely to obtain such permits given widespread institutional racism and corruption. Indeed, such initiatives are a potential threat to powerful land grabbers and corporations. As a consequence, we suggest that allies or institutions that are attempting to forge alliances with indigenous peoples so that they can use drones for territorial monitoring, should help them advocate for greater rights to fly drones over the airspace of their territories. This is potentially a key issue to avoid the risk of “illegally” acquiring drone imagery that might be invalidated in a court as evidence of environmental liability or make an indigenous neo-cadastre illegitimate to State officials’ eyes.
4.2. Grassroots Innovation Using Small Drones for Indigenous Mapping and Monitoring?
We conclude this article by emphasizing the key importance that developing innovative solutions geared toward achieving greater levels of territorial protection and environmental justice have for indigenous peoples. We argue here that, among such solutions, the use of new spatial technologies such as small drones coupled with novel community mapping and monitoring strategies based on them, hold promise to improve the living conditions of those communities that learn how to take advantage of this technology and the socio-political processes that may be triggered by its utilization. Attuned to this affirmation, we posit that this strategy may comprise several novel aspects that can be regarded as “grassroots innovation”, which is a concept coined over the last two decades [77
] that refers to bottom-up approaches directed at solving community problems with explicit concerns for sustainability and justice [49
]. For example, gaining drone and technical skills by individuals from historically marginalized communities is a democratization of technological access. More importantly, generating new alternative territorial representations using “advanced western” mapping tools which until recently were only available to the State, leverages indigenous peoples’ political action by improving their ability to produce knowledge, build narratives and make claims to strengthen their rights, legitimacy, and authority over their territory. As part of this process, it is likely that indigenous peoples’ governance institutions be bolstered.
Arguably, conceptualizing indigenous mapping and monitoring using drones as grassroots innovation may be useful insofar as broader recognition of its societal value may help them protect the habitats in which they wish to live and thrive, which is an asset for them but also for the entire society as it will enhance biocultural conservation and climate change mitigation. At a time when innovation has become such an important political objective to pursue the societal changes necessary to overcome the multifaceted crisis that humanity faces today [79
], State and other actors’ recognition of grassroots innovations such as the one presented here could lead to greater support for indigenous peoples. For instance, financial resources to devise and run drone-based indigenous monitoring strategies, including setting up drone schools, could be more easily secured if these initiatives were socially valued as community innovations of societal importance. Though there is an increasing effort to acknowledge alternative forms of social innovation, such as non-for-profit initiatives from the civil society and grassroots movements, the literature on the topic is still in its infancy, there is a severe lack of theory and it is barely relevant to indigenous peoples. We therefore posit that a more specific theoretical framework of grassroots innovation which can be applied within the context presented in this paper could be useful for securing the necessary funding and external assistance; furthermore, it could help elicit new narratives and representations that might be more meaningful for donors, governments and relevant stakeholders, which in turn might foster the creation of cross-scalar networks. We suggest that developing such a framework deserves further research because it could bolster indigenous territorial defense, environmental justice, and sustainability; thus, we aim at pursuing this development as a follow-up endeavor.