Roughly half of the world’s tropical rainforests are located in the Amazon. Those forests store immense amounts of carbon, so protecting them is critical to slowing climate change. But fires, illegal logging, the expansion of cattle and soy farms, mining, and the illegal drug trade are driving rapid deforestation. As more trees are destroyed, so is the forests’ ability to sequester carbon.
The Indigenous peoples who have long inhabited the Amazon are working to halt illegal deforestation, but the work is difficult and dangerous. So since 2015, the Rainforest Foundation U.S., a nonprofit headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, has been partnering with Indigenous communities to incorporate new technology into forest monitoring efforts.
Yale Climate Connections spoke with Suzanne Pelletier, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation U.S., to learn how the combination of new technology and traditional governance systems can help protect the Amazon and empower Indigenous communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yale Climate Connections: Roughly how many people inhabit the Amazon, and how have Indigenous peoples traditionally managed the forests?
Suzanne Pelletier: Indigenous peoples control about a quarter of the entire land mass of the Amazon basin. And they control about a third of the carbon that’s stored with in the Amazon basin. So I think it is important to realize how key a role Indigenous people have in protecting this global resource.
There’s over a million Indigenous peoples who inhabit the Amazon, and traditionally they have used their resources sustainably. These communities really depend on their forests for everything — for their livelihoods, for their spirituality, for their medicine. It’s so tied into their culture and their livelihoods that they really have a vested interest and a cultural interest in protecting their forests.
So if you look at where forest cover is most protected in the Amazon, it’s where Indigenous peoples live. The deforestation rates are three times lower on Indigenous territories as they are on other types of forests in the Amazon.
YCC: How have Indigenous communities traditionally monitored their forests?
Pelletier: By physically marking where their territories are and then periodically going personally to monitor and investigate the health and the ecosystems that they control. It’s been really going on foot and going by boat and just taking a look around to make sure that their forests are intact.
And so because a lot of Indigenous peoples’ territories are quite large, often in the past, when they discovered that deforestation had happened, it was too late. Maybe it was in a part of their territory that was difficult to get to and they didn’t go to very often if they had a large territory. And in the past, they often took matters into their own hands if illegal activity was happening. But unfortunately, it’s become more and more dangerous for Indigenous peoples to push for their rights and to try and stop illegal activity in their territories.
YCC: How is the Rainforest Foundation working with these communities to monitor their lands?
Pelletier: We’re working with them to integrate technology with their traditional monitoring systems. Communities in the Amazon, they’ve protected and monitored their territories forever. But now — really in the past 10 years — there are such user-friendly, inexpensive technological tools that communities can then add to those traditional practices.
For example, now there’s free satellite-based data that shows deforestation. And so we’re working with Indigenous technicians to learn how to analyze that data and learn where there’s deforestation alerts in their territories.
Then we’re integrating handheld smartphones. We’ve helped customize apps that communities can then use to collect data on the deforestation events that happen. And it provides a lot stronger evidence for them to push for enforcement.
With this new technology, now they can actually have video and photo evidence that’s geo-referenced and time-and-date stamped of illegal deforestation happening that they can bring to either their traditional authorities to decide what to do about this deforestation, or bring it to the law enforcement or government officials to enforce their rights and pursue illegal activity that’s happening in their territories.
So it’s a real integration of this new technology with traditional governance systems that we’re finding is really decreasing deforestation.
YCC: I read that you’re also using drones for this work. Can you tell me about that piece of it?
Pelletier: We’ve helped train Indigenous community members first to map their territories and to create really good, high-quality maps using drones to fly around their territories. Then we’ve also integrated that with their monitoring systems.
So if they know that some deforestation is happening in some part of their territory, sometimes it would take them days to get to that territory. Now they can often use a drone to fly over and take video evidence of what’s happening in that area. It’s enabled them to collect evidence of illegal deforestation in places where it’s dangerous for them to confront someone that may be doing that illegal activity. And so they can use drones for regular monitoring of their territory and also for more efficiently investigating illegal activity when they see it on the satellite-data deforestation alerts.
YCC: When the community monitors are using smartphones to collect data, what are the dangers in that step of the process?
Pelletier: There’s often unfortunately death threats and threats of physical violence to Indigenous people who are trying to raise awareness of illegal deforestation in their territories. So when community monitors are going to collect evidence, they don’t go alone. They go in a group.
But even in a group, they really are taking risks, unfortunately. You know, people now know that if you’re taking video evidence or photo evidence of illegal activity, it’s a lot more likely that that evidence will hold up with law enforcement. So while the tool makes their job easier, it also can put them at risk.
It’s incredible to hear the stories of courage of Indigenous people that we work with who know the risk they’re taking on, but feel that they’d be taking a risk to their culture by not doing anything. They know that their forests will be gone in a matter of years if they don’t stand up to this activity right now.
YCC: Are there any stories you can share that demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach?
Pelletier: We’ve known anecdotally that integrating technology with traditional governance has decreased deforestation. But now by actually working with academic researchers over the past couple of years, we’ve actually proved that this system actually does work and dramatically decreases deforestation.
The first community that we worked with using this system in Peru, they were experiencing a deforestation rate of 5% per year. There was a lot of illegal coca being grown in the region for cocaine production. And so by using this technology and system, within the first year, their deforestation rate went down to zero and it still remains at zero.
And that was just the first example, and then there are many other communities that followed. And that’s why we collectively have engaged in this research that worked with 36 different communities across 250,000 hectares across the Peruvian Amazon to show that it’s not just a one-off result, but it’s a system that is highly effective at decreasing deforestation, especially in communities that are the most threatened and the most at risk.
YCC: What is the potential to scale this effort?
Pelletier: We think there’s incredible potential to scale this. In the regional capital, there’s a few technicians who can analyze the satellite data and then transfer the data to the local community. Each community creates a group and trains a small number of people as community monitors. And then the evidence [they collect] about the deforestation events gets fed back to the regional group that then can engage law enforcement and also look at trends at this regional level.
So that is a highly scalable model. You just need a few people at the regional capital that have a good wifi connection and are trained in the analysis. And then the important part is these local community members who are there all the time, who have a vested interest in protecting their territories. So that model is simple and scalable.
YCC: What can our readers do to help support Indigenous communities and help protect the Amazon?
Pelletier: First is just awareness in general, understanding that we can’t solve the climate crisis without saving the Amazon. So first and foremost, understanding the Amazon’s important role and trying to do your part with your own personal consumption decisions to make sure that you’re not contributing to rainforest destruction. Make sure you know where the meat and soy that you eat is coming from, which is something that anybody can do in the United States. And then supporting organizations that are working at the grassroots level with community members that are actually protecting forests, making sure that if you do support an organization, that it actually gets to the people that are making the decisions every day about whether the forest stands or is cut.