Technology in the Amazon
The Amazon rainforest in Ecuador is an extremely biodiverse ecosystem vital to the survival of more than 70 indigenous communities. Alianza Ceibo is an organization that unites these communities in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Four different indigenous groups run it with the purpose of improving their people’s livelihoods and protecting over 20,000 square kilometers of the rainforest from environmental degradation. This article will examine how technology in the Amazon empowers these indigenous communities.

About Alianza Ceibo

The Alliance received the 2020 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Equator Prize for its efforts to support women entrepreneurs and connect remote communities with solar energy and clean drinking water. The Alliance also provides lawyers to represent the individual communities in land rights cases. As for the use of technology in the Amazon, the Alliance advocates for mapping systems to document indigenous stewardship of the rainforest, and monitoring systems to hold illegal trespassers accountable. The specific technology Alianza Ceibo and other organizations are using includes mapping technology, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), drones, satellites and blockchain.

Mapping Technology

In the Amazon rainforest in northern Ecuador, the four indigenous ethnic groups that founded the Alianza Ceibo — the Siona, Waorani, Kofan and Secoya — use mapping technology to fight illegal development on their land. Mapping applications can document native plants, important cultural sites, near-extinct animals and geographical spots vital to the community’s well-being. The use of mapping technology in the Amazon’s indigenous communities demonstrates how the indigenous people’s culture, land and livelihoods inextricably link.

The Counter-Mapping Project

The Waorani indigenous group uses mapping technology for its counter-mapping project in the village Amisacho. Digital Democracy, a nonprofit based in California, supports this technology. The work of the counter-mapping project aims to provide an alternative map to the typical government maps only showing square footage and natural resources. The Waorani’s map documents the rich history and cultural significance of the rainforest that they and other indigenous ethnic groups call home. Indigenous leaders of the Waorani, leaders of the Kofan, Secoya and Siona and international activists have all worked together to provide the most accurate representation of the link between people and land.

In a Sierra magazine article, the counter-mapping project’s leader Opi Nenquimo said “Our map shows all of the things that don’t have a price…Building it we also build our communities.” The Waorani do not just use maps to show outsiders the significance of their land. They also use it to teach their younger generations to honor and steward land which their ancestors have defended since the Inca. Using technology in the Amazon’s remote communities can be very useful and empowering, but it is not a replacement for indigenous knowledge and practices that members of the indigenous community passed down through generations.

In 2018, the Waorani used data gathered on Digital Democracy’s mapping application Mapeo, to sue the Ecuadorian government for not asking consent to begin a drilling project. The Waorani, with support from Digital Democracy and Amazon Frontlines, won the case in April 2019. It set an important precedent for future land rights cases in Ecuador and around the world.

Drones and Satellites

Drones that can take satellite images or videos illustrate another effective type of technology being employed in the Amazon rainforest. Drone technology allows people to monitor vast swaths of land in a short amount of time, and to hover over areas that may be difficult to reach on foot. Technicians monitor footage derived from the drones and then contact the relevant indigenous group. With their knowledge, understanding and presence in the forest, indigenous people can make the best decision on how to deal with a potential threat.

Indigenous groups protect nearly a quarter of the Amazon and deforestation affects most of them, which is why it is so important that they are at the forefront of environmental efforts. Speaking to the importance of supporting the communities that live in the rainforest, Suzanne Pelletier, director of the Rainforest Foundation U.S. (RFUS) said, “These are not just trees, these are not just lands, it’s such a virtual part of their culture, it’s how they maintain their health and wellbeing.” To destroy the rainforest is to destroy indigenous people’s livelihood.

RFUS is another nonprofit supporting the use of technology in the Amazon. The organization works directly with indigenous communities, focused in Panama, Guayana, Peru and Brazil. RFUS employs drones and, most recently, blockchain technology.

Blockchain Technology

Blockchain is a public digital registry that timestamps and records transactions, providing the opportunity to make real-time financial transactions without having to go through banks or other institutions. At this point, many still consider blockchain experimental, but the promise of transparency, complete digitization and worldwide access are driving its implementation. This form of technology in the Amazon is new, but for RFUS, it is full of promise.

RFUS uses a blockchain that the Regen Network, a computing and technology development group, developed. RFUS’s pilot program is in the indigenous Ticuna community of Buen Jardin de Callarú in Peru, but the organization hopes to expand the use of this registry across the Amazon. The pilot group agreed to protect 1,000 hectares of forest. In the first year, it plans to save 70 hectares and plant at least 7,000 trees. The group will receive compensation for its work using blockchain technology.

A big problem in forest conservation has been how to support the people actually doing the work on the ground, the same people deforestation most harms. Blockchain offers a possible solution and RFUS has been successful in utilizing it in Peru. In June 2020, RUFUS reported that the Buen Jardin De Callarú community and others working with it were able to reduce the deforestation rate from 10% annually to zero between 2018 and 2020, and obtained pay for their work with blockchain.

These three different technological innovations have demonstrated how indigenous communities in the Amazon are able to fight modern threats with modern technology. The Amazon rainforest and indigenous communities link together, dependent on each other for a healthy and long life. The use of technology in the Amazon empowers indigenous groups to effectively protect the rainforest and thereby also their livelihoods.

– Caitlin Harjes
Photo: Flickr