Indigenous agents fight deforestation with drones and AI in Brazilian Amazon

  • The rate of deforestation has increased in recent years in the Brazilian state of Acre, which is now in the top five for deforestation risk, according to a forecast by an artificial intelligence tool developed by Microsoft and Brazilian nonprofit Imazon.
  • In a study developed especially for Mongabay, the AI tool shows that Acre has 878 square kilometers (339 square miles) of land that is at high or very high risk of deforestation, including inside, 20 conservation units and 29 Indigenous territories.
  • Efforts to combat deforestation include training of Indigenous people to monitor their own territories against agriculture-driven invasions.
  • One Indigenous agroforestry agent told Mongabay that he and his peers rely on technology such as drones and GPS to monitor forest fires, guard against poaching, and thwart illegal invasions.

Siã Shanenawa strikes a markedly different image from the stereotypical view of Brazil’s Indigenous people using bows and arrows as their main tools. Siã Shanenawa’s weapons of choice are drones and GPS devices to monitor the Katukina/Kaxinawá Indigenous Reserve where he lives, in the Amazonian state of Acre.

There’s a reason he’s using these tools: the Katukina/Kaxinawá reserve is the one that’s at the greatest risk of deforestation in Acre, according to a study by the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, developed exclusively for Mongabay.

Using its artificial intelligence tool called PrevisIA, Imazon detected 878 square kilometers (339 miles) of land at high risk or very high risk of deforestation in Acre, spread across all 22 municipalities in the state. This includes areas inside 20 conservation units and 29 Indigenous territories, most of them near the northern border with Amazonas state, according to the AI tool, developed in partnership with tech giant Microsoft and launched in August.

With a population of less than 35,000 and a total land area of 24,202 km2 (9,344 mi2), the municipality of Feijó has the greatest area at high risk of deforestation, at 144 km2 (55 mi2).

Agroforestry agents from the Katukina/Kaxinawá Indigenous Reserve in Feijó municipality, in Brazil’s Acre state, carry out monitoring work to prevent fire and deforestation in their territory. Image courtesy of Stoney Pinto/ Comissão Pró-Índio’s Acre office.

Feijó is also where the Katukina/Kaxinawá Indigenous Reserve is located, home to the Huni Kui and Shanenawa peoples. Siã Shanenawa, whose Portuguese name is Ismael Menezes Brandão, is one of 21 agroforestry agents in this 230-km2 (89-mi2) reserve. Living in the village of Shane Kaya, he helps monitor the Indigenous land to prevent invasions by outsiders seeking to grab the land for agricultural purposes.

“It is very important to monitor the land because we Indigenous people are safer when we can detect if someone is invading, if someone is taking wood from our land, if someone is hunting directly on our land, if someone is putting up a fire close to our land,” Siã Shanenawa told Mongabay in a phone interview from the city; there’s no cellular reception in his village.

Siã Shanenawa and other agroforestry agents like him are trained by Comissão Pró-Índio (CPI), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous groups and other marginalized communities. Training includes not only land monitoring and protection, but also land management and sustainable agricultural practices for the local population.

Monitoring usually starts out with a soft approach, when the Indigenous agents walk around their land and talk to farmers operating right up against their borders. “When we can explain to people that our land is protected, they understand. Many get upset, saying that our land is too big. But this is our land, and they must leave it alone, they cannot invade it with cattle,” Siã Shanenawa said.

Not all encounters with invaders are peaceful. Siã Shanenawa said it’s not uncommon for him and others in his community to apprehend invaders and take them to the closest police station in as the whole community is involved in the monitoring system, not only the trained agroforestry agents.

Indigenous people are trained in managing natural resources in Indigenous lands to allow sustainable forest use without deforestation. Image courtesy of Stoney Pinto/Comissão Pró-Índio’s Acre office.

The threat of deforestation in the Katukina/Kaxinawá reserve isn’t unusual in Acre. The state now holds the dubious honor of having among the highest deforestation rates in Brazil. It’s home to part of the infamous “Arc of Deforestation,” the sweeping swath of expanding farmland clearing the forest in its path and heading inexorably toward the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. Beyond Acre, the Arc of Deforestation crosses the states of Maranhão, Pará, Mato Grosso and Rondônia.

In September, Acre accounted for 10% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, according to data from Imazon’s monitoring system, SAD. That puts it in the top five states nationwide — a position already predicted by the artificial intelligence tool.

Agriculture-driven deforestation

Agriculture-driven deforestation has swept across much of the Brazilian Amazon, including the states of Mato Grosso and part of Pará, according to a report from Greenpeace. “But the arc of deforestation keeps advancing, especially in the southeast and west of Pará, where destruction is reaching titanic proportions, and in the regions where the states of Rondônia, Amazonas and Acre are located,” the report says.

One of the main factors fueling this agricultural advance is an official governmental project called Amacro, according to Rômulo Batista, Greenpeace’s Amazon campaigner.

Named for the border area between the states of Amazonas (AM), Acre (AC) and Rondônia (RO), Amacro aims at bringing agricultural development to the heart of the Amazon. In April 2020, Assuero Doca Veronez, president of the Acre Agricultural Federation, said he’s not troubled by the increase of deforestation in the state.

“For us, deforestation is a synonym for progress, as much as this might shock people,” he said. “Acre doesn’t have minerals. It has no potential for tourism. What it does have is some of the best land in Brazil. But this land has one problem: it’s covered in forest.”

“Standing forest is life for everyone, not just for us Indigenous people”, says Siã Shanenawa, an Indigenous agroforestry agent in the Katukina/Kaxinawá Indigenous Reserve in Feijó municipality, in Brazil’s Acre state. Image courtesy of Siã Shanenawa.
Partnerships between Indigenous peoples and public and non-governmental institutions enable land monitoring to prevent environmental degradation. Image courtesy of Siã Shanenawa.

At that point, however, the idea of Amacro was just being born. Inspired by Matopiba, a similar initiative in the border region of the states of Maranhão (MA), Tocantins (TO), Piauí (PI) and Bahia (BA) that has become the heart of Brazil’s soybean production, Amacro has advanced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, it encompasses 32 municipalities and a total area of 465,800 km2 (180,000 mi2), with a population of 1.7 million people, according to government data. On paper, the project would establish an area of forest protection by offering economic alternatives to the population, instead of clearing the forest.

This isn’t what’s happening in practice, however, campaigners say. “We are aware of the issues regarding regional development policies that do not take into consideration the local vocation, or the population that occupies this place, be it Indigenous, riverine or extractive peoples,” Batista told Mongabay in a video call. “This is a type of development program that did not work anywhere in the Amazon. This is a new interesting factor that will propel a lot, if it is not already propelling, a dispute for land in those municipalities.”

Given the increase in deforestation, Batista said he welcomes technological innovations that might help with prevention, such as the artificial intelligence tool PrevisIA. “Prevention has a better cost benefit because it avoids losing forest and prevents communities’ displacement,” he said.

This map from the artificial intelligence tool PrevisIA shows the areas at risk of deforestation, from highest risk (at the top, in dark red) to lowest risk (at the bottom, in pink). Image courtesy of Imazon.

PrevisIA not only provides information about the areas at risk of deforestation, it also has a second phase, which Imazon is entering now, that aims to engage local authorities in prevention. This phase of the project is starting in Pará and will expand to Acre, according to Imazon researcher Carlos Souza Jr. The first step is to create a benchmark of actions to be used in other localities, he said, starting with the municipality of Altamira. Seventy-five percent of the deforestation risk in the municipality is concentrated in just 10% of its area.

“We need to change the local paradigm. It starts with understanding the deforestation that has already occurred and what is at risk,” Souza Jr. said in a phone interview. “Next step is to develop a plan of action, with improvement in governmental infrastructure to monitor and combat deforestation (which includes personnel and equipment). Once we have a case study to show the success of the plan of action, other places will follow.”

The Acre state government says it has its own policies and monitoring systems to prevent deforestation. “There are ongoing concrete actions that get to the rural, traditional, riverine and Indigenous communities, as well as educative and publicity campaigns against deforestation and illegal forest fires,” it said in a statement through the press office of the state agency for environmental and Indigenous affairs, SEMAPI.

Training agroforestry agents

Comissão Pró-Índio has been training Indigenous people in agroforestry and land management in Acre since 1996, starting with an initial batch of 15 Indigenous people from four different reserves. Today, there are more than 200 trained Indigenous monitors in 29 reserves, said Julieta Matos Freschi, coordinator of the land and environmental management program for CPI’s Acre office.

She noted that Indigenous lands in Acre remain 98% forested, while surrounding areas are largely destroyed. “Prevention of deforestation is what Indigenous people do the most,” Freschi told Mongabay in a phone interview.

“All activities in which CPI Acre works have some impact, direct or indirect, over deforestation. Indigenous education is a continuous process, which starts with the official demarcation of their lands and includes teachers and health agents.”

She said training to become an agroforestry agent comprises agroecology education to learn how to recover degraded land — riverbanks, dams, streams, areas that were pasture or that had been deforested — through agroforestry systems, with the planting of medicinal herbs and native trees.

Katukina/Kaxinawá is Acre’s Indigenous reserce with the greatest risk of deforestation, according to data from nonprofit Imazon. Image courtesy of Siã Shanenawa.

The agents learn also how to manage forests and hunt and fish, Freschi said. They develop techniques in community monitoring for territorial protection, carrying out surveillance excursions to monitor threats of invasion for poaching, cattle grazing, or logging. “All these are some of the actions that have a direct and indirect action in controlling deforestation within Indigenous lands,” Freschi said.

As part of this monitoring system, drones and GPS are used to gather information regarding invasions and fires. This information is sent to Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs.

For Siã Shanenawa, monitoring the land is not the duty only of the trained agroforestry agents, but includes the whole community.

“It is a role for the [Indigenous] chief, for the residents, who are also aware of this. Monitoring belongs to the community, it belongs to the people,” he said. “This will leave us protected, especially now with this government that is trying to end the forest. Standing forest is life for everyone, not just for us Indigenous people, because the forest reduces the heat a little and gives control of the environment on our planet, right? We are always protecting the forest so that there is no deforestation.”

Banner image: Siã Shanenawa is an agroforestry agent in the Katukina/Kaxinawá Indigenous Reserve in Feijó municipality, in the rural area of Brazil’s Acre state. Located about 350 kilometers (217 miles) from the capital Rio Branco, Feijó is Acre’s municipality with the highest risk of deforestation by mid-2022, according to data from nonprofit Imazon. Image courtesy of Siã Shanenawa

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