Jungle Drones: Can Indigenous drone projects in Latin America and the Caribbean be made more sustainable?

Tom Kissock-Mamede
11 min readNov 1, 2020


Ismael Menezes Brandao from indigenous rights group Comissao Pro-Indio (CPI) is pictured taking part in the drone training in Porto Velho, Rondonia, Brazil, in December 2019. Credit Hazel Pfeifer for CNN

Indigenous communities in Latin America and the Caribbean are the focus of growing critical concerns surrounding deforestation, climate change, and social movements. Many of these communities have also been contending with governments who have track records of implementing policies solely based on economic growth and private enterprise without considering Indigenous belief systems. This present context is traceable and attributed to neoliberal globalization with Latin America and the Caribbean being resource-rich and dependent on the export of such resources (Woodgate and Forero, 2002). Which in turn directly affects indigenous communities due to their proximity to extraction points of minerals and resources, and because of their isolation in an environment where the state has little to no presence in order to protect them and their lands. These combined factors have contributed to the opening up of indigenous territories and caused deforestation. Therefore, there needs to be more grassroots movements surrounding drone use and research so policymakers can establish future drone projects, funding, and frameworks.

Since 9/11, drones have held connotations of military force, yet this article focuses on consumer drones used to monitor, and map Indigenous territories. Consumer drone use in Indigenous communities may not be militaristic, yet there are some parallels to the violence part of the military drone theory where drones can become a useful and powerful tool for vulnerable communities who face constant violent threats from external actors. These threats manifest in various forms, whether it's institutional violence with legal actors lobbying to authorities to purchase land for extraction and mining, or the illegal land grabbing for illegitimate enterprises (which can also include narcotics production), or even in some cases the state itself. One example of this is seen in the Brazilian Amazon, where President Jair Bolsonaro has taken a combative stance in recognising indigenous land titles by adopting policies that diminish and undermine indigenous and environmental rights. This is all in the name of economic development, opening the region up for agriculture production. These topics are touched upon and discussed in the following sections by framing the application of drone use by Indigenous communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, to address larger structural problems with sustainable development. The next section gives an overview of the previously published journals around drones being used in forestry projects in the region, to extrapolate roadblocks the studies have found. The subsequent sections explore where the research has space to focus on, and the ethical concerns surrounding technology and indigenous communities.

Previous Studies
It’s relevant to incorporate the work on drones into the wider literature on technology in indigenous communities to encompass a pre-existing theoretical framework. This can help shed light on the problems research studies have encountered with drone use in reference to monitoring forests. Even in a quick glance over the scholarship, there is a multitude of reoccurring themes, and much of those are polarised between the positive or negative aspects of the interaction with the technology. However, most scholars address the problems and complexities these communities tend to face such as intellectual property, land rights, and the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nature of ascertaining titles. This had lead some to belligerently suggest that there no other way and needs to be more focus on bringing Indigenous communities into the sphere of their governments, by obtaining the correct papers such as birth certificates in order to achieve more social capital. Yet, by adopting a realist perspective on the bureaucracies, the ‘Ecosystemic innovation for Indigenous People in Latin America’ paper fails to acknowledge a realist perspective of how indigenous ontology differs from western knowledge, and therefore their perception of property rights and the environment. Scholars such as Berkes (1998), have even suggested words such as ‘ecology’ are problematic due to the notion of Indigenous vs Eurocentric epistemologies.

There’s a substantial amount of focus on agricultural practices and forest communities using drones in Latin America and the Caribbean rather than indigenous communities. However, most of the literature acknowledges that there should be more done by policymakers to account for Indigenous communities, their knowledge, and traditions. Vargas-Ramírez and Paneque-Gálvez (2019), explain this by reviewing 39 studies of academic research and grey literature in English and Spanish from 2012 to 2017. They conclude that many projects haven’t created sufficient frameworks, and therefore cannot be assessed by actors who can implement further research. They also find that grey literature on drones can be biased and poorly reported, yet there’s still a growing interest in the studies published around the use of drones.

Figure: 1 (Vargas-Ramírez and Paneque-Gálvez, 2019, p.4)

These academic studies and research projects are normally published one year after the studies completion, and the authors also find that there are reoccurring themes, that they categorize in 6 points:

1. Most Projects in LAC happened from 2014.

2. Studies Predominantly used multirotor and commercial drones.

3. Studies focused on gathering territorial data and improving decision making for defenses.

4. Majority of the projects were implemented by external actors.

5. When running the training workshop, local knowledge has been under-appreciated.

6. Outcomes saw a lack of practices and frameworks implemented for future development.

Barriers to Sustainability Development
This section builds on those 6 points by offering three explanations for research outcomes and discusses the wider implications for sustainable development when factoring in Indigenous communities. It is possible to ringfence three major barriers faced by indigenous communities, NGOs, and governments when considering who is implementing indigenous drone forestry monitoring programs.

Funding is one blockade to bringing projects dedicated to conservation and sustainability using drones as a tool to indigenous communities. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, the first is how the project will be implemented and who owns the rights to the data, and the second is the profitability of the project. The majority of research carried out so far in Latin America and the Caribbean has been from researchers in conjunction with NGOs, which have been mainly self-funded, due the nature of the project not having much economic capital, apart from promoting schemes such as the REDD+. However, this is changing due to the nature of drones becoming more widely available and consumer-friendly. In the long term this theoretically means Indigenous communities will be more likely to attain drone technologies, yet, there are also limitations to this.

On examining previous research on drones being used by indigenous communities all of the papers and reports mention the lack of infrastructure as a significant barrier to projects achieving objective outcomes, which will lead to further funding and development. The lack of infrastructure comes in many forms that have been addressed across various papers, some of which include the lack of electricity, computers, batteries, and cellular coverage. The data collected by the drones also normally needs to be taken away for processing. Also with consumer drone prices decreasing, the battery life is limited, therefore limiting the amount of data they can collect in a single flight. However, there’s also the argument outside the literature that drones may actually help to combat this lack of infrastructure by transporting goods. This is seen in the Peruvian Amazon where WeRobotics has tested drones with Indigenous peoples in order to deliver supplies across the rainforest. This technique could be extremely valuable during the covid-19 pandemic considering these communities normally do not have ready access to medical supplies or a local hospital.

WeRobotics testing cargo drones in the Peruvian Amazon

However, the energy issue (Drones batteries and power) also raises the wider sociological question of development in addressing Latin America and the Caribbean’s political ecology. Taking the Amazon rainforest case, the use of technology in indigenous communities creates a paradox. Many of the minerals being extracted near to, and threatening indigenous reserves and peoples, are in fact the same minerals that are used to make technology components like Gold and Niobium for transistors and conductors. This raises the complexities of how the concept of development is seen by different actors through different paradigms; indigenous communities through the lens of maintaining a sustainable environment which we all depend on; versus the state and private enterprise through profit and advancement who argue that the majority of their populations through the mechanisms of consumer capitalism and globalization have been lifted out of abject poverty.

Indigenous and Cultural knowledge:
This barrier has been at the heart of the literature and studies around sustainable development and Indigenous communities' integration with technology. Indigenous technological literacy has been a major factor that has been incorporated into various groups by various programs during the rise of the ‘information Society(p. 21). Apart from raising epistemological and ethical issues, as discussed in the next section, the problem also raises a barrier for sustainable development.

The first problem is much of the pre-existing literature puts forth the argument that younger members of ICs will be more likely to stay in their communities if there’s more access to these technologies, which they can operate and tie into their traditions and rituals. In order to be familiarised with drones, Indigenous Communities need to acquire outside knowledge, which comes in two forms, either through a top-down structure such as an NGO, or an expert coming into the territory. Therefore, there's room for ambivalence in regard to sustainable development and the notion of it being driven by pluralistic actors. Individuals or institutions may in fact have their own agendas of what they perceive as development and how to disseminate that knowledge. The other way to gain this technical knowledge is by traveling to a city or town to learn in a university or school. By viewing this from some indigenous elders’ perspectives, there’s a considerable fear that these practices can have a detrimental effect on the community as a whole, where younger members lose the sense of solidarity and culture.

Indigenous knowledge as defined by Berkes, (2012, p. 7) is:

“a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment”

This understanding of Indigenous epistemology, rituals, and traditions has also been mirrored in the proceeding development literature by Woodgate and Forero, (2002, p. 251), who described it as the ‘environment within’, when looking at the Tukano and Arawack peoples of the northwestern Amazon. This notion needs to be more of a focal point in future drone studies carried out in the region and should be increasingly considered when addressing barriers to drone project pitfalls. This definition, also sheds light on the funding complications due to knowledge as something ‘culturally transmitted’, meaning it’s hard to legally prove which individual owns the intellectual property. However, as indigenous communities in Latin America and the Caribbean see the environment as part of their knowledge, there’s a cultural understanding of why monitoring their forests across the region is so crucial.

This knowledge or epistemological stance is however not the same as many illegal actors in the region, who are causing deforestation. Drawing again on the Brazilian Amazon, President Jair Bolsonaro, has hollowed out institutions such as FUNAI and IBAMA which exist to police and monitor the regional situation. This has led to illegal actors violently encroaching on indigenous territories with vast impunity, provoking concerns of ethnocide. This comes with ethical implications surrounding the safety of using drones.

Ethical Considerations
Illegal actors in Latin America and the Caribbean have been willing to use force to protect their interests, which only serves to reaffirm the argument that this kind of extractive neoliberal economic development is causing safety concerns. During a project in the Harakmbut Territory in Peru, an illegal miner confronted some members of the indigenous community and threatened to shoot down their drone, putting the safety of all involved at risk. This mirrors another situation and fears in Panama, where numerous communities are pushing back on the use of drones due to the dangers which may arise. Yet, in an earlier paper, Paneque-Gálvez (et al., 2014) argues that Forest-based communities can become safer due to drones helping them institutionalize. However, sadly since 2014, the region has become progressively more dangerous for indigenous communities who confront illegal actors which may explain the shift in tone.

However, when turning to the wider literature on technology and indigenous communities, there’s some room for hope. Since the advent of ‘digital capitalism’, communities have been able to mobilize through grassroots campaigns via social media platforms. Ultimately, though one may argue that these platforms own the rights to their content, sometimes alongside NGOs. This can be understood through building on Jürgen Habermas’ ‘Public Sphere’, and then Fraser’s (1990) concept of the ‘Counter Public Spheres’, which has become a fragile notion when accounting for such powerful and all-encompassing actors such as social media platforms and some large NGOs. The autonomy of indigenous communities can depend on the commutation power of such actors, and therefore the need for indigenous institutionalization via grassroots movements should be the focus of the technology programs. There’s even an argument developing in academic literature framing access to social platforms and technologies being a human right for indigenous communities. This is perhaps becoming more evident with some large NGO’s now starting to push for this Drone use by indigenous communities as seen in this video from WWF in June of 2020, with no real discussion of the dangers which could arise from it these projects.

WWF Video of Indigenous drone use in Brazil in order to monitor deforestation.

Also, Radjawali and Pye (2017) discuss the argument that Indigenous communities aren’t always homogenous groups, and therefore the practice of using drones is in itself a political one. Whoever is implementing these projects has to consider; who to include, who to exclude, and what/who to monitor. Therefore, the political ecology of Latin America and the Caribbean needs to be carefully considered as the problems across the region may seem similar, however, there are many different factors to account for, be it regional government’s policies or the resources in those areas.

The region's projects surrounding drones and wider technologies such as Information communications technology have the space to learn from the projects in Asia and Australia. Some of the examples such as Indigital, run by Aboriginals peoples in Australia helping to educate others into their practices via a mobile application. Also, the Drone School, part of the Swandiri Institute in Indonesia, has given the intellectual property to indigenous communities who have mapped the Kapuas River. These are good examples of NGOs and academic institutes starting drone and technology projects and then handing them over to the communities once they’ve been established. This isn’t an ideal construct but may help indigenous communities in Latin America and the Caribbean draw inspiration and start-up grassroots movements with affordable consumer drones.

The connotations of drones as weapons for governments since 9/11, should be mirrored by indigenous communities for their own sustainable development. There’s currently a technological arms race happening across the world that draws these communities into the fight in order to survive. The major gaps in the research have been the failures to implement and create robust frameworks in order to give these tools to indigenous communities. Once this changes, knowledge can thus be culturally transmitted, and the information disseminated to appropriate policymakers who are responsible for the continuity of these development projects.

It’s also important to stress that policymakers should act fast, deforestation is very important to consider when thinking about the current covid-19 pandemic. In 2019 researchers had already speculated that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could lead to unknown diseases, viruses, and pathogens from animals coming into contact with humans who have no natural immunity to them, and therefore create future epidemics and pandemics.

Reviewing this topic through the lens of sustainable development, governments also need to be held more accountable by the scientific literature as they are ultimately to blame for the mismanagement of territories that succumb to deforestation. A recent study of drones in the region published in 2020 by Millner (p. 12) states,

“The future of drones in conservation is ambiguous and unsettling, but this is exactly where their political potential inheres.”

Indigenous communities now have access to tools that can reshape their existence, capital, and environment. Thus, it’s important to critically think about the idea of sustainable development and drones through the eyes of the people on the frontlines of the environment humanity should be striving to protect.

Woodgate, G. R. and Forero, O. A. (2002) ‘The Semantics of Human Security in North-west Amazonia: Between indigenous peoples management of the world and the USA’s state security policy for Latin America’, in Page, E. and Redclift, M. (eds) Human Security and the Environment: International Comparisons, pp. 244–266. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.



Tom Kissock-Mamede

Aspiring social technologist, desperately attempting to communicate the intersection between Live-streaming, Human Rights, Social media, and Latin America.