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Rising sea levels: Relocating indigenous people in Panama 

July 2021: CRJ Partner, PIX4D explains how drone mapping helped an overpopulated island threatened by climate change off the Panama coast

mainpicOnly 400 metres long and 150 metres wide, the tiny island of Gardi Sugdub is overpopulated. All images, courtesy of Panama Flying Labs

Some of the people most vulnerable to ecological changes are indigenous populations, who often live in a delicate balance with their local environment. The Guna population, indigenous to the islands off the east coast of Panama, faces the dual challenge of rising sea levels and overpopulation in a small area. 
 
Panama Flying Labs, hosted by the Universidad Tecnológica de Panama, has a team of five people working at the university alongside a network of volunteers. The group offers training and assistance in work associated with drones and data and is familiar with projects that assess the impacts of climate change. Towards the end of 2019, the team worked on a project with the community of Gardi Sugdub, an island close to the Panama mainland. The island is part of the San Blas Archipelago, where the majority of the Gunas live, and is known as the Comarca Guna Yala. 
 
The archipelago is sinking under rising sea levels, but at the same time its population is growing. As a result, there is unsustainable resource pressure on the islands. An ambitious project aims to relocate the population to the mainland – to do this, the authorities had to look at available land to see where the Gunas could be relocated, as well as assess the current state of the largest islands. Flying Labs was part of the land surveying project, using photogrammetry software to assess terrain on the island and on the mainland. PIX4Dmapper was the ideal tool for this project as it is well-suited to detailed surveying projects.
 
Relocating an indigenous population is a delicate project and is difficult to carry out, especially when indigenous peoples who have close ties to the land have to be relocated. The Guna live across several islands, but offering this relocation gives them the chance to expand, as the population is growing too large for their current home. 
 
The surveying project was launched by the Inter-American Development Bank, which kept in contact with the Guna. This meant that the affected population had a say in how the work was handled and could provide their own insight, which is incredibly valuable for understanding the logistics of moving a large population. Many indigenous tribes or groups are forcefully relocated, or not given a chance to influence the decisions made by planning authorities.

pic2Including the local population was critical to the success of the project 

Panama Flying Labs surveyed several areas that were spaced out from each other. The team found access difficult, owing to the inadequate infrastructure of the terrain. Travelling between the sites, the team spread its data collection over two days in October, 2019, paying close attention to weather forecasting, as the dates fell during the Panama rainy season. 

The team aimed to generate orthomosaics, which are a great tool for visualising and measuring distances or areas over a space of land. Additionally, orthomosaics are easy to interpret, making them helpful in decision-making processes as they can be presented to large groups with no surveying knowledge and be used to convey helpful information. 
 
The Flying Labs team worked with the Gardi Sugdub Committee, which helped to make decisions and kept the local population informed about progress. The team received remarkable support from the locals who helped guide them through the new areas being mapped, including island walking recognition and providing transportation by car and boat.

pic3New locations are being proposed to relocate the indigenous population

Before the Flying Labs team could even start surveying, it had to access the locations to be mapped. The team travelled from Panama city to Gardi Sugdub, taking several hours across main roads as well as rural mountain routes. It reached the target areas by boat, carrying as little equipment as possible to make transit easier.
 
Although the rain delayed some of the planned flights, the team worked across multiple days so they were able to mitigate its effects. It was also very warm, which affected the autonomous features of their hardware and software. The drone struggled to take off owing to a checklist failure, and the data collection failed for two trajectories of the flight plan. The team had to place the drone and the flight planning hardware under shade and then in the range of the car’s air conditioning before doing a second flight to recapture the lost imagery. 
 
Once the data was collected, 2D maps were created. Several areas were surveyed, with a total of eight datasets from which the team could create several outputs. This enabled a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) to be generated. This included contour lines to help with terrain analysis. 
 
PIX4Dmapper’s settings enabled quality outputs to be exported to other software and applications, demonstrating its versatility. The quality report summarised the key information about the data and helped identify the location of images that were not calibrated, keeping the team informed about where there may be gaps in the surveying project.
 
When Flying Labs and its team of volunteers had the necessary results, they set up two workshops. The local community was invited to the sessions, so people could hear the results and implications. This meant that when it came to decision-making, those who would be relocated were involved in the process and understood the information presented to them. 
 
By gathering and sharing this data, Flying Labs was a part of empowering the indigenous community, helping it to make informed decisions about their future. The outputs from PIX4Dmapper were actionable and useful. They can also be helpful in deciding the future of important sites, including protecting indigenous architecture or planning for land use in a way that uses environmental knowledge to find the optimal solution. 
 
In a situation where time and space were influential factors, photogrammetry assisted in finding a solution to a delicate challenge. Difficult situations like this will become more common over the coming decades with rising sea levels. However, vulnerable communities need to be a part of decision-making, and when they are empowered, it can bring about positive change for everyone.
 
 

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