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Detecting disasters on community lands in the Amazon: film highlights indigenous struggle

  • For decades, indigenous communities across the western Amazon have protested the contamination of their water, soil and other natural resources by oil companies.
  • A short film, “Detecting Disasters,” explores the use by the Kukama Kukamiria and other indigenous groups of small drones to strengthen their case to officials and reduce future damage to their health and that of their forest resources.
  • The successful, consistent use of drones and other new technologies by remote communities requires overcoming several basic challenges, including adequate electricity, training time, and availability of parts to make repairs.

Tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon have been fighting decades of contamination of their natural resources by foreign and domestic oil companies.

Oil spills, leaky pipelines, and dumping of toxic production waters have polluted soils, gardens, rivers and lakes, as well as the fish and other animals living there, for more than 40 years. Health problems resulting from drinking and washing with waters contaminated by billions of barrels of toxic waste include epidemics, diarrhea, and skin diseases. These problems continue, though the government frequently blocks or ignores the people’s protests, or it sides with industry’s efforts to hide its trail of impact.

Clean-up crew at an oil-contaminated stream in Loreto, northern Peru after a 2016 spill, one of several that year from the PetroPeru pipeline. Image credit: Al Jazeera, YouTube

The short film “Detecting Disasters” explores one action the Kukama Kukamiria and other indigenous groups are taking to strengthen their case and reduce future damage to their resources—using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, a.k.a. drones) to monitor their lands.

The Kukama Kukamiria people’s territory in northern Peru includes the exceptionally biologically diverse Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, which has also been invaded and drilled by oil industry teams.

Contamination from oil and gas spills in 2014 in the Kukama Kukamiria people’s water still imperils the community. They and other groups teamed up with the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest  (AIDESEP),  an organization representing indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, and U.S. non-profits to learn to fly small UAVs.

“It’s a way of monitoring territory more efficiently and more quickly,” Apu Alfonso López Tejada, President of the indigenous Kukama Kukamiria organization ACODECOSPAT, explained in the film, below.

The Kukama training produced high-quality filming and mapping results, and AIDESEP has helped train indigenous groups to monitor their territories using drones since 2015.

“We can check very distant areas and also see the potential threats, such as illegal mining and illegal logging, among other activities, which are incompatible with the objective of creating this protected natural area [Pacaya-Samiria],” said participant Edwin Yunga Yauta M., from the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. “In this way, we can mitigate the impacts currently being caused by hydrocarbons, mining, and also encroachment.”

The Amarakaeri people in southeastern Peru also began using UAVs in 2015 to monitor land cover change, specifically from invasions of their territory by illegal loggers and miners.

The idea is to train trainers who can build capacity regionally. “We are trying to train an environmental monitor in each of the communities of our organization,” López Tejada said.

Nevertheless, introducing UAVs or any new technology to remote societies is not without its difficulties, as highlighted in a 2017 review of the use of UAVs in indigenous territory monitoring.

Despite the high enthusiasm of the Kukama training participants, the single workshop’s short duration and a single practice drone, which was then kept by AIDESEP for future use, limited practice time. The lack of practice time, both during and after the 12-day workshop, prevented the group from learning to fly the UAV independently. Similarly, they lack easy access to parts to fix the drone when it crashes and access to the internet to allow the UAV pilots to view the ground below the UAV as it flies.

The upper row shows the fixed-wing drone used and some of the workshop participants. The lower row shows drone imagery acquired that found an oil spill within the Kukama territory not yet cleaned after a year. The spill was located some 11 km inside a swampy forest area; reaching the site on foot was unsafe and very challenging. Photo credits: Paneque-Gálvez et. al (2017).

Decades of careless management of Amazon hydrocarbon and mining infrastructure continues to take its toll on some of the world’s highest biological and linguistic diversity, including areas far from the drilling and pipeline sites.

The 64 Amazonian indigenous peoples include over 1,800 communities that are home to more than 650,000 people in 19 linguistic families. AIDESEP works to defend their rights and lands, highlight their problems, and present alternative proposals for development. The organization conducts periodic trainings, some in conjunction with NGOs and universities.

‘If Not Us Then Who?’ is a US non-profit that produced this and other participatory films, photos, and content to highlight the role indigenous and local peoples play in protecting the planet.

Banner image shows the lush vegetation in the rainforest canopy of southeastern Peru. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri


Paneque-Gálvez, J., Vargas-Ramírez, N., Napoletano, B. M., & Cummings, A. (2017). Grassroots Innovation Using Drones for Indigenous Mapping and Monitoring. Land6(4), 86.