Tribes Redraw Land Boundaries—With GPS and a Small Fleet of Drones

From the Standing Rock Sioux to the Wounaan in Panama, indigenous communities are staking claims to traditional territories even when they no longer possess ownership rights.
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Carlos Doviaza, Project Specialist with the National Coordinator of Panama’s Indigenous People, prepares to fly a drone in the village of Rio Hondo. Photo by Katri Heinamaki.

The name of the village is Plantanares, and it’s accessible only by a long boat ride along the Gulf of Panama, up through the brackish, crocodile infested mangrove swamps that push against the coast. The indigenous Wounaan people live here, deep in the rainforest, and have lived here for as long as anyone can remember—before Panama was a country, before the Europeans arrived.

“The settlers are causing uncontrolled devastation, and the river’s practically dried up this year.”

The rainforest is their source of food, water, medicine, income, and shelter. Their culture, language, and customs are intrinsically linked to the area. But Plantanares, like many other indigenous communities in Panama, faces an uncertain future: Slash-and-burn ranchers, mining interests, and illegal loggers routinely make incursions into traditional aboriginal territories, threatening the very lives and livelihoods of residents.

“The settlers are causing uncontrolled devastation, and the river’s practically dried up this year,” said Harmes Barrigón, Plantanares’ community leader. “We’re losing primary forest due to the huge burns, and we’re losing animal life.”

Despite the Wounaan’s longstanding tenure in the area, the land technically is not theirs; what the Wounaan need, Barrigón said, is title to the land in order to hold intruders accountable. To do that, they need a map of the territory’s boundaries—and that’s where digital technology comes in.

From the jungles of Panama to the Great Plains of North America, indigenous people around the world are fighting to protect their traditional territories from extractive industries, land grabs, and resource exploitation.

In the United States, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota has faced off against the Dakota Access pipeline for months, culminating in the current massive occupation along the Missouri River and a temporary halt to construction after the federal government stepped in last week. The tribe says that construction would threaten its water supply, as well as destroy  traditional territories and sacred sites like burial grounds. In Arizona, the San Carlos Apache Nation has fought to stop a copper mine that would raze ceremonial sites.

In all cases, the underlying issue is the same: Tribal nations and communities are fighting to save traditional territories they no longer possess ownership rights to.


Rewind 80 years to the establishment of the comarca system.

In Panama, a comarca is the rough equivalent to an Indian reservation where communities exercise relative autonomy. The establishment of comarcas was fairly progressive for its day, safeguarding many indigenous rights. However, many territories, like the area where Plantanares is located, were never recognized by the government or included in the comarca system, leaving them open to outsiders who often exploit indigenous resources with impunity.

“They produced a document saying that this is your [territorial area], but in reality, the territory wasn’t like that.”

Then, in 2008, the Panamanian government announced new legal procedures that would allow indigenous communities to apply for collective land titles. Although the plan seemed promising, nearly a decade later not much has changed: A total of eight community land titles have been granted while another 46 await government action.

“What we do want is for the government to act responsibly because there are laws about the procedure for titling collectively owned lands,” Barrigón said. “Procedures that haven’t been carried out.”

One of the biggest problems communities face when working toward obtaining land titles is that information on territorial boundaries isn’t always accurate. For instance, borders drawn on government maps often don’t coincide with actual GPS data collected by communities. In some cases, the shapes drawn for one area end up becoming the territorial boundary for a completely different area.

Imagine it like this: You have a blank piece of paper, and you need to draw the state of Idaho by hand. There’s a good chance the shape you draw isn’t accurate. Then your friend makes a copy of your Idaho drawing for an official map but places it where Mississippi should go.

In some cases, those incorrect borders have given indigenous communities more land than they asked for, while in other cases they have essentially taken away massive tracts of territory.

“The government came in and just told us ‘This is your map, here you have it, everything’s right’,” said Diogracio Puchicama, program coordinator for the Wounaan National Foundation. “They produced a document saying that this is your [territorial area], but in reality, the territory wasn’t like that.”

Enter the Rainforest Foundation, a small fleet of drones, and a crew of tech-savvy activists.

“There are known trails or natural boundaries that have been established over time by our grandfathers, our ancestors,” said Puchicama. “Based on that, there is a route, a [territorial boundary] based on that.” That means indigenous communities must use GPS coordinates to accurately map those ancient trails and boundaries, and then use drones to check the areas for illegal activities.

Currently, indigenous groups in Panama, Guyana, Peru, and Belize are engaged in the same types of projects with the help of the Rainforest Foundation.


According to a report authored by the Land Rights Now campaign—a partnership between Oxfam, the International Land Coalition, and other international organizations—indigenous lands as well as areas used in communal fashion make up more than half the land on Earth. As many as 2.5 billion people depend on those lands, but those people own only one-fifth of them. “The remaining 5 billion hectares remain unprotected and vulnerable to land grabs from more powerful entities like governments and corporations,” according to the report.

Advanced tools are changing the way indigenous people advocate for their lands and cultures.

In Panama, those conflicts have turned violent a number of times. In 2011, for example, the Wounaan and Emberá people set up a blockade on the Inter-American Highway in order to bring attention to their need for land titles. In 2012, the Ngobe people also blocked the highway to put a halt to mining operations in their comarca. During that blockade two people died, and girls and women arrested during the incident reported sexual violence and rape during detention.

“There are still problems,” said James Anaya, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People. “Different actors that just don’t want to accept that the indigenous people have a valid right to possess land and territories at the exclusion of others.”

While the comarca system has helped protect aboriginal rights and culture, Anaya said it’s not without its shortcomings, primarily from a regulatory system that is often apathetic to indigenous people. “You could have a map, and then you could have the government recognize the map on the basis of title, or you could have them issue a title,” Anaya said. “But you need a broader regulatory apparatus; you need some level of social consensus behind that so those titles are recognized.”

According to the Rainforest Foundation, violence has hampered the organization’s ability to assist indigenous groups with land-title efforts. In Peru, for instance, illegal logging, gold mining, and coca plantations have temporarily halted similar drone and mapping projects because of safety concerns.

“Indigenous leaders are protecting their territory and the forest proactively,” said Tom Bewick, regional program director for the Rainforest Foundation. “They need effective state and international support to carry out this work effectively.”


While advanced tools are changing the way indigenous people advocate for their lands and cultures, one major question remains: Can technology help protect aboriginal rights and resources in countries that remain indifferent or directly hostile to their own native people?

In Plantanares recently, Harmes Barrigón strolled through the village. Chickens and children ran through the tiny hamlet. The gray, cinderblock houses were surrounded by clotheslines draped in fabrics of peach, yellow, red, turquoise, and blue.

Barrigón has been acting leader of the community since 2012 after his brother-in-law, Aquilo Opúa, was shot and killed by a logger during a dispute. Four years later, Barrigón says he is still worried about the safety of his village. “[The settlers] said that if they see any of our people walking alone, they will shoot them,” he said.

So the mapping project is on hold for now. As soon as Barrigón can figure out how to keep his community safe, the work to save the rainforest will resume. Until then, he waits.

“For us indigenous people, the forests and mountains are part of our life, and we live off of them,” Barrigón  said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have oxygen in our blood.”