You are here

Flying Panama's Underdogs

The story of how GPS units, cameras and chance encounters on the streets of Bozeman Montana helped 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.

Encroachment is shown in red pushing in to Wounaan territories. credit: Native Future

Untitled Stewards

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
Cattle ranchers have been swiftly clearing Wounaan forests to graze cattle, causing the thin and delicate tropical soils to wash away. Loggers have found their way to the last remaining stands of valuable hardwoods, and narco-traffickers are using the impenetrable forest canopy to shelter their smuggling activities.

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
While on the hunt for GPS units and cameras to put in the hands of the Wounaan, Cameron Ellis, Native Future’s Land Tenure Project Manager had a chance encounter that netted much more than he expected. His friend Chris Boyer, a pilot who flies for LightHawk informed Cameron that a flight in Panama might be arranged.

“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
This felt personal to me," said Armando, "because of the work I did early in my career with indigenous people in my home country of Nicaragua.” Having faced similar challenges, Armando suggested a two-pronged approach: one photography mission, and a flight bringing together indigenous leaders with the government officials who held the keys to titling their lands to see firsthand from the air Wounaan lands and the deforestation that's already happened. 

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
In early March, Colorado pilot Stephanie Wells flew two missions for Native Future over the remote and contested Wounaan territories. Christian Ziegler donated his time to join the early morning photography flight.

“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 finished movie La Trocha: Native Lines 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 for more information about the Wounaan and their land titling efforts.