Flying Panama's Underdogs
How did GPS units, cameras and chance encounters on the streets of Bozeman Montana help indigenous people trying to protect their land in Panama?
A band of trees along the river is all that remains after land has been cleared for cattle grazing. credit: Christian Ziegler with aerial support from LightHawk.
The mud sucks at your shoes as you step off your boat onto the riverbank. Pushing through the dark understory away from the river, you abruptly emerge into a clearing and are blinded by intense sunlight. The forest surrounding the river where you hunted, fished and gathered wild foods is gone.
This is the experience of the Wounaan, a small indigenous population in Panama who live in harmony with the natural world. Undaunted by the thick forest and jagged peaks that have insulated the Wounaan territories from disturbance, outsiders are now encroaching and clearing the land.
The Wounaan have lived in the river valleys along Panama’s Pacific coast, from Panama City and west into Colombia, for generations. Although never granted formal title to their land, their way of life has been protected by the dense forest and rugged coastal mountain ranges that surround them.
As a result of this isolation and their healthy stewardship of the land, Wounaan territories constitute some of the most intact tropical ecosystems remaining in Panama and the Americas. This has been changing over the past few years.
Land clearing on Wounaan territories continues. credit: Christian Ziegler with aerial support from LightHawk.
Tinderbox in the Forest
This has led to serious confrontations between loggers and the Wounaan leaving a graveyard of torched bulldozers in the forest and heightened tensions between the camps. LightHawk recently donated flights to the non-profit group Native Future to help the Wounaan avoid future conflict while protecting their lands.
A logger's tractor still chained to an endangered hardwood lies derelict in the forest after being torched. credit: Native Future
On the Fly
“My initial interest in a LightHawk flight was to acquire aerial images of the deforestation,” explains Cameron, “for animated maps and a short film about the conflict. Some geo referencing points would also help us calculate rough acreages of deforestation without provoking further conflict between the loggers and the Wounaan.”
Minutes into his first conversation with Armando Ubeda, LightHawk’s Mesoamerica Program Manager, it became clear that this would be no ordinary flight request.
A group of Wounaan children greet visitors to their village. credit: Native Future.
More Than Requested
Knowing how important getting quality images was to truly elevating a flight, Armando had previously enlisted professional photographers to donate their skill for LightHawk's partners. For the Native Future flights, Armando pitched the project to Christian Ziegler, a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP).
Volunteer pilot Stephanie Wells traveled to Panama to donate flights for the Wounaan. credit: Christi Turner
Rising Above the Conflict
“I have lived in Panama and have seen many areas getting degraded fast,"he said, "[protected areas] getting chewed on from the edges, forest getting cut down for cattle and housing development. I imagine that the traditional landowners, in this case the Wounaan, will be better stewards of the land.”
Months later, Cameron is poring over 700 aerial photographs handed over by Christian after the flights. These images are the building blocks of new maps of Wounaan territories and provide footage for a documentary about the Wounaan's struggle (view the trailer here).
The Wounaan meanwhile have seen seatmates become allies. Government officials who flew with them now sympathize with the Woutaan's case for title and grasp the importance of addressing what is happening on the ground to avoid dangerous conflict, and preserve Panama’s rich biodiversity.
Visit www.nativefuture.org for more information about the Wounaan and their land titling efforts.
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