How Drones and GPS Are Helping Indigenous People in Ecuador Save the Amazon (The Pacific Standard)

SINANGOE, ECUADOR — The day begins with everyone drinking a big cup of Yoko. A man called Viejo (“old man,” in Spanish) carves the bark off a special vine found only in the Amazon highlands and mixes it with water. The resulting brew has a gritty texture and a bitter, earthy taste and gives the body instant energy that lasts for hours. After they drink, the indigenous Cofan guardia (Spanish for security force) grab their spears, backpacks, and GPS devices and head off to map their territory, deep in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest.

Armed with machetes, two youth from the community chop through the thick jungle overgrowth to uncover the barely visible path. Suddenly Viejo stops; through the maze of trees and leaves some 20 meters off the trail, he sees the Yoko vine. Since the plant is sacred for the Cofan, they decide this deserves a point on the map.

Edison Lucitante and Juan Herrera arrive with the technology. They both have GPS trackers in their pockets and cell phones, on which they use an application to help them document points of interest like this. Lucitante opens an application called Mapeo, selects the appropriate category for Yoko, types a short description of the plant, and takes a photograph.

“This is only found in certain areas. There’s almost none left,” Lucitante says about the Yoko vine. “That’s what I like most about the idea of mapping this information: Now we know exactly what’s inside our territory.”

This is one of several excursions over the last three-plus months, during which the Cofan community of Sinangoe have been mapping their territory. The process began in January and will involve trekking through 55,000 hectares of mountainous, roadless terrain in the Amazon rainforest in the northeast of Ecuador.

Their goal is to use this map to demonstrate their ancestral connection with the land, and to establish standing to apply for an official land title. Such a document would finally allow the Cofan to have autonomy over their territory after years of fighting for land rights, and trying to fend off miners, poachers, and illegal loggers on their own.

Maps have historically been created by people in power and used as a way to claim land, to administer cities and nations, to enforce property rights, and to plot military strategies. But in recent years, marginalized communities around the world have begun to use new technologies to create their own maps and thereby demonstrate their deep local knowledge of their territories, which can help in their fight for land rights.

For the Cofan, this technology has already helped them win a landmark lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government last year. As a result of the suit, four different judges ordered that 52 mining concessions near their territory be canceled.

“Our worry is this that [developers] keep destroying what we have,” says Lucitane, who is also the current president of Sinangoe. “Every inch of our territory, every inch of our mountain is life for us,” he says.

Mapping a People’s Ancestry

There are some 40 families living in the community of Sinangoe today. They live in modest homes made from wooden planks, use medicinal plants when they get sick, and live largely off animals they hunt, fruits that grow in the rainforest, and community gardens where they grow plantains.

“We don’t live like they do in the city,” where people buy whatever they want, Lucitante says; for the Cofan, he explains, the rainforest is their hardware store, pharmacy, and supermarket. This knowledge about sustaining life and community in the forest was passed down from their ancestors, and the mapping process is therefore also an important way to preserve this knowledge for future generations, he says.

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