The digital ghosts of the rainforest

The Shipibo use modern technology to preserve nature and their own way of life

Protecting the rainforest with GPS maps

The forest fires in the Amazon move many people and are a topic of world politics. We at RiffReporter want to name problems clearly, but also report on solutions. The people who are the subject of this article are working concretely to protect the rainforest.

When Teddy Cairuna wants to let his drone fly, he asks the spirits of the forest for permission first. He plays his favorite Icaro on his cell phone, a monotonous song in the Shipibo language. He connects the spirit of the plants with the spirit of the people.

„Look, there settles a butterfly, the forest agrees", Teddy is happy and gets his drone out of his backpack. The 38-year-old Shipibo skilfully maneuvers the almost new aircraft over the trees with his controls. The whirring of the drone scares away the butterfly. The lanky man wears rubber boots, jeans and a gray vest with the inscription "Forest Patrol of the Community of Nuevo Saposoa". He is part of his village’s volunteer forest ranger group, a kind of volunteer fire department that makes sure no one messes with their community forest.

We are in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest, on the border of the 9.678 hectares of community forest of the Shipibo community.

The boat trip from the provincial capital of Pucallpa to the settlement of Nuevo Saposoa took four hours and to the border of the community forest again as long. At first glance, the village with its 250 inhabitants looks like a haven of idyllic beauty. Wooden houses stand in a row on poles so that they are not flooded during the rainy season. Some are brightly painted, with hammocks dangling from the porches. At night we hear only the sounds of the forest and the laughter from some houses. There is still no Internet, no cell phone reception, and the electricity from solar cells is not enough for TVs and computers, but just for one light bulb per hut- and the battery of the drone.

On the controller’s display, Cairuna sees what the drone camera hovering above him is recording. It can fly over the adjacent rows of trees that block the view into the forest from the ground. Just two years ago, invaders had planted coca there.

„We want to be sure that the coca farmers don’t come back", he explains. He is pleased with what he sees: Forest is now growing back on the land that was cleared back then. No sign of new intruders. „They know that we are patrolling here, and that’s why they don’t show their faces anymore.“

The drone and GPS maps allow crime to be proven

We left the village early in the morning to enter the forest in two wooden boats, each with an outboard motor. Teddy Cairuna stands at the bow and shows his brother Larry at the helm the way through creepers and water plants, rapids and fallen tree trunks. „Already at the age of twelve, we learn to navigate our rivers by boat", he explains, pointing unerringly to the left, where a small navigation channel runs and we turn into a side branch.

The hours-long journey through rivers and streams is like a trip through an enchanted paradise. The surrounding plants, bushes, lianas and trees are reflected on the water, as if there were two worlds, one above and one below the water. At any moment, you think, a forest spirit might descend from one of the trees or a mermaid might emerge from the water.

For the people who live here, this is a reality. In the water, the spirits of the dead live in underground cities, and they must be honored and protected against intruders. There are unfortunately quite a few of them.

„Three years ago, we had 260 alarms about illegal trespassers", says Teddy Cairuna. The greatest danger for Nuevo Saposoa comes from illegal coca farmers who- often on behalf of drug traffickers Clearing forest areas and growing the forbidden plant. But timber traders also want to make a profit from the rainforest and cut down trees illegally. As if to prove it, a barge full of logs comes toward us on the narrow waterway.

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„When we went into the forest to hunt or cut wood for our own house construction, we noticed the illegal trespassers, but we had no evidence to show the police.“ When the representatives of the state authorities arrived in the area weeks later, they often found no one there and had to leave without having achieved anything.

Fear of escalation

„That’s why smartphones, drones and the satellite maps are so useful to us", explains the shipibo, pulling his new white cell phone out of his pocket. He cannot use it to make phone calls, there is no network. But it can take photos, determine the exact coordinates by GPS and transmit them to the authorities. The non-governmental organization Rainforest Foundation US provided it to him and also trained Teddy Cairuna and his fellow campaigners in how to use the drones.

„We didn’t know what they were, thought they were small planes", he tells. „That I, a simple Shipibo, could ever fly a drone, I never dreamed of it.“ He is visibly proud of his new skills. And the drone has another advantage when it comes to monitoring the forest: "It’s often too dangerous if we confront the intruders directly", says Cairuna.

Only last year a member of the neighboring village was killed. Thanks to the drone, they can now take pictures of affected areas without putting themselves in danger. Not like a year ago, when they suddenly encountered a logger in the middle of the forest. Here, too, the brothers want to check that everything is in order.

We climb up the clay bank and walk through the forest for half an hour. The Amazon rainforest has little in common with our German cultural forest. Before each step, Larry Cairuna clears a small path with his machete. Lianas, leaves, roots and branches cover the ground, ants and beetles crawl about. Everything shimmers dark green or brown, the trees are so high that no sunlight breaks through. It smells of wetness and mustiness, and the mosquitoes bite every second.

The value of this forest as a storehouse of carbon and haven of biodiversity can only be guessed at. Suddenly we see wooden beams leaning against the trees in the middle of the thicket. „This is where we found the logger. He had made the logs into beams and was in the process of hauling them out of the forest", reports Teddy Cairuna. „We started arguing about whose land he was cutting wood on. Fortunately it didn’t escalate, but this was a dangerous situation.“

The payoff for forest protection has not yet reached the surface

Thanks to GPS coordinates, they were able to prove it was their community land, alert police and prosecutors, and evict the logger. Today, this place is emblazoned with a white painted pile it marks the border of the community forest of Nuevo Saposoa.

Despite its inaccessibility, or perhaps because of it, the Amazon rainforest has become the plaything of multiple interests. A tug-of-war is underway over one of the last undeveloped forest areas, with some unequal means. On one side are the indigenous people who want to protect their forest. They are supported by foreign NGOs such as the Rainforest Foundation, the Forest Protection Program of the Peruvian Ministry of Environment, and the environmental prosecutor Jose Luis Guzman. These government programs are also supported by climate protection funds from foreign countries, including money from the International Climate Initiative, which is funded by the German Federal Environment Ministry.

The community of Nuevo Saposoa has signed a contract with the Peruvian Forest Protection Program- in return for their active protection of the forest, they receive direct compensation payments. „The village receives ten soles (three euros) per year for each hectare of community forest preserved.", says Brenda Maldonado of the state forest protection program. The money will be used according to used an investment plan set up by the village community. „Nuevo Saposoa decided to use the money to buy new fishing nets, a hostel for tourists and a drone, reports Maldonado.

209 indigenous communities participate in this program in Peru. The aim is to preserve 54 million hectares of forest by 2020. This includes nature reserves and five million hectares belonging to communities like Nuevo Saposoa. But the reality is different. „With the direct payments to communities, we have received just two million hectares of forest so far", admits Brenda Maldonado of the state forest conservation program.

An environmental prosecutor without a means of transportation

Instead, between 2012 and 2017, Peru cut around 155.000 hectares of forest lost. The forces pulling on the other side of the river are much more powerful: the Ministry of Agriculture, the regional government, small and large settlers, land speculators, gold miners and palm oil plantation owners. Some officials still have the old idea floating around in their heads that the Amazon should be developed and put to agricultural use.

Environmental prosecutor Jose Luis Guzman explains how easy it still is in Peru to convert what should be inalienable forest land into productive land: "A settler cuts down a hectare, grows corn or soy on it, and then applies to the Ministry of Agriculture for the land to be converted-" he says for a much larger area than the one he has actually cleared.“ Once the land is designated for agricultural use, it can be registered in the land registry and sold legally.

Buyers are, for example, investors on behalf of large palm oil companies. Guzman can hardly contain his indignation in the face of these practices, which he experiences on a daily basis. Corrupt officials also play a big role. Shortly before Christmas 2018, the Director of Agriculture of the Ucayali region was dismissed for corruption he had enriched himself massively in land speculation.

The work of state forest guards is also hampered by a lack of equipment. „When we get a report from a village, we first have to ask the navy or a non-governmental organization to provide us with a boat and the gasoline that goes with it", says Guzman. The environmental prosecutor and the five environmental police officers of Ucayali do not have their own means of transport to enter the forest through the waterways.

Life in Nuevo Saposoa may seem idyllic, but materially, people here are among the poorest in Peru. People live from fishing, most still have a few ducks and chickens in their backyard. Women sew traditional blouses in hopes of selling them for a few soles to one of the few tourists who make it this far. Money is scarce in Nuevo Saposoa, and people need notebooks and pencils for their children, gasoline for their outboard motors and medicine when the old shamans are at a loss.

Closely connected with the plants, trees, animals

Modern life is also making inroads in the rainforest. The direct payments of the forest protection program are used for income-generating projects of the whole village it was used to buy fishing nets or fabrics, for example. Wages for the forest protectors themselves, however, are not foreseen. Teddy Cairuna doesn’t agree: "The traditional community work that everyone does on a voluntary basis doesn’t work here anymore, he says.

That’s why he wants the Peruvian state to also pay the individual forest rangers for their services. „We are not only protecting the forest for ourselves, we are doing it for the whole world.“

Conservation as a tradition

Rosa Cairuna, an aunt of drone pilots Larry and Teddy, sits on her porch sewing on a foot-powered sewing machine. Despite her 65 years, her long hair shines pitch black, and she nimbly climbs down the chicken ladder from her house. Her husband lies next to her in a hammock, carving a paddle for his canoe.

He tells of the old legends and customs: that mothers covered their babies with a cloth as soon as they passed under one of the mighty kapok trees, so that it would not bewitch their children. Or that new fathers stayed at home for a month, because if they cut down a tree in the forest, the child could be harmed by the spirit of the tree. People in the Amazon rainforest feel closely connected to the plants, trees and animals. „That’s precisely why", says Teddy Cairuna "we indigenous peoples are the best protectors of the forest. It is part of our tradition.“

This article first appeared in "Nature" magazine appeared.

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