Technology boosts the fight against environmental crimes in Acre State
At the end of April 2021, a small group of state agents traveled the rivers of the Alto Tarauacá Indigenous Land - something rare in that territory of 143,000 hectares covered by dense forest, in one of the most desolate regions of Acre. They were part of the first joint operation bringing together men from the Environmental Policing Battalion of the State of Acre (BPA, in Portugese) and the National Indian Foundation (Funai), with the mission of carrying out environmental monitoring and restraining illegal hunting in that protected area.
Small boats are the only way to access that Indigenous Land, where rivers are often shallow and sometimes get completely blocked. Isolation and risks grew as the group entered deeper into the territory inhabited by unknown indigenous peoples. In just two canoes, the agents of BPA and Funai did not have room for many supplies and needed to take only items that were absolutely basic for survival. These tough conditions, however, were compensated for with the use of a lot of technology.
"The situation there is very complex, in an extremely isolated area, on the border with Peru, where the displacement needs to be done in small canoes. The technology was essential to make the operation possible. We used GPS, global satellite telephone and drones to perform the inspection of the Ouro and Itamaracá rivers," said the commander of the BPA, Major Kleison Oliveira de Albuquerque.
The devices used in the mission are part of the set of equipment donated to BPA by WWF-Brazil. According to Albuquerque, since December 2019, when battalion agents participated in a drone piloting training offered by WWF-Brazil, the corporation began to change its way of working in the combat against environmental crimes - and this experience resulted in a multiplier effect which was extended to other public institutions in Acre State.
"It is even difficult to measure the importance of having this equipment available. Before that, communication was only possible from the base of Tarauacá Indigenous Land, but when a team went out to the rivers, they were totally incommunicado during the operation, which involves many risks. But, with the satellite communication system, the agents in the field give us the coordinates and we can locate them quickly in any emergency", says Albuquerque.
"Our presence in the territory is important because it inhibits environmental crime. But the main positive aspect is that we had the possibility of strengthening ties with indigenous peoples", states the commander. "Since my participation in the drone piloting training, we started to increase our interaction, which allowed us to understand what we could help with. The course opened up many possibilities for how we can operate in these territories."
The training for the use of drones mentioned by the major was carried out by WWF-Brazil in December 2019, in Rondônia State, with the participation of 40 people, including himself, two other BPA agents, as well as indigenous people, and conservation agents from several institutions. "Since then, our contacts with the indigenous peoples have been strengthened, which led us to this operation carried out in partnership with Funai", he says.
Reference in the stateAfter that, at the end of July 2020, BPA received the equipment donated by WWF-Brazil and disseminated the knowledge acquired, carrying out a training that qualified another nine agents – seven from the Battalion itself and two from the Acre's Fire Department. Since then, work with drones has not stopped. According to Albuquerque, from September 2020 to May 2021, 82 actions were carried out using drones, including the monitoring of the Indigenous Land and inspection missions in conservation units and areas impacted by invasions, illegal deforestation, and fire. Several arrests of environmental criminals were carried out.
"After we started to operate the drone, the difference in the work was huge. We used to walk 20 kilometers a day, to perform an observation without a defined objective. Now, we take off and we quickly identify whether we needed to move to a certain area. The results were so good that we later had demand for further training. Several institutions involved in environmental command and control are looking to us for new training and are already acquiring the equipment," says Albuquerque.
The major highlights that, thanks to the partnership with WWF-Brazil, BPA not only received two drones and satellite communication equipment, but also two tablets, a thermal printer, high-capacity computers, two notebooks, two cell phones, GPS and two projectors. "This was equally important, because we now have the computational capacity to process and analyze images taken in the field as well as satellite images," he says.
Strengthened managementAccording to Osvaldo Barassi Gajardo, conservation specialist at WWF-Brazil, the institutional support offered by the project in partnership with BPA was aimed at strengthening the corporation's management through the donation of equipment, with an investment of around BRL 100,000, but also to enable prevention and environmental education actions. “That's why the Battalion requested projectors, for example, which are also used in training. The project was relevant because these tools empower an organization with a wide prominence in Acre, enabling better work in the field of conservation", adds Gajardo.
The equipment directed to BPA is part of a project to expand the use of technology for territorial monitoring. Since the end of 2019, WWF-Brazil has donated 20 drones to 18 organizations in 5 states in the Amazon, with an investment of around BRL 300,000. Gajardo notes that these partners also received training and other tools that optimize the use of data generated by drones, such as GPS, cell phones and computers.
Multiplier effectAccording to him, in addition to improving the work itself, the BPA became a reference in the matter. "The project started as a one-off help to BPA, but the agents who participated in our training developed a deep interest in the technology, to the point of replicating the training for professionals from other agencies, such as the Fire Department, the Prosecution Service and Funai", highlights Gajardo.
One of the agents is Sgt. Márcio Brasil. A member of BPA, since he had the first contact with the drone, he has not stopped learning and teaching. "After the first training, I've already done three small specializations, one specific training on drone and environment, and now I'm taking a course on mapping areas with the application of drone in the topography", says Brasil.
Next, the sergeant intends to undergo training in drone maintenance - a real need for the Battalion, which is far from the country's large industrial centers. "In 2020, we had a mega operation in the forest and that's when we introduced the drone in policing. That's when we realized how useful it is in the operation. We were able to cover a much larger area much more quickly. Planning the flight, in 15 minutes I managed to examine four polygons - a job that, without this technology, would take the morning and part of the afternoon", he states.
In the group, Brasil is responsible for downloading the satellite images and producing the maps that guide the field teams. "They don't go blindly anymore; they have everything mapped already. The planning defines the exact place of action, based on the comparison of satellite images from the last three or four months, in order to identify deforestation. The drone is used in most of the time, because of access. And also, to identify areas that were hidden by clouds in satellite images," he explains.
Flying the drone and learningAs drone piloting courses become more and more elaborate, thanks to the enthusiasm of the BPA staff, knowledge about the uses and resources of the technology is also improving. The sergeant recalls that, after one of the early operations with the equipment, when he returned to the base and carefully analyzed the images obtained during the flight, it was possible to see a person burning the area. According to Brasil, this could have ended up in flagrante delicto, if the analysis had been carried out in the field.
"The screen of the cell phone we used to check the images in the field was too small. So, we went ahead. Now I take the computer with me during operations, precisely for that. I extract the image and do the detailed analysis in loco. Performing the image analysis was another thing I had to learn, which shows how the equipment opens up a huge horizon of alternatives for us to work," he says.
This versatility of technology allows infinite options in all areas of activity of environmental agents. In the case of the environmental police, resources are used to fight a whole range of crimes - from deforestation to illegal hunting, from clandestine garbage dumps to criminal wildfires. In the case of firefighters, the focus is especially on fires - but the usefulness of drones is multiple.
"With the use of the drone, we have been able to be much more efficient in inspection. This has also made clear advances in our work on firefighting, prevention and community guidance," says Lieutenant Freitas Filho, from the Fire Department of Acre, one of the participants in the training carried out by the BPA in August 2020.
"I had already participated in a first training course with the environmental police, but this year we carried out this larger training with the BPA, with the participation of 25 firefighters. This expanded course enabled us to implement a specific firefighters action unit with the use of a drone, which operates mainly in the capital region", says Freitas. In all, BPA-AC has already trained 39 people.
Resource optimizationAccording to him, the use of the drone optimized the use of resources, personnel, and time in firefighters' operations. "We have a drone, which was donated by WWF-Brazil, and given our limited manpower, our resources have been very optimized. Instead of traveling over land in large areas for hours, we map a particular location in about 30 minutes, and then we send a team to the field at the focal points related to the fires", explains the lieutenant.
Freitas recalls that the drone was donated to firefighters in June 2020, together with 163 firefighting pieces and personal protection equipment – such as floating pumps for water collection, backpack pumps, fire swatters, air blowers, masks, gloves, and helmets. "Since then, the drone has been used every day in fire monitoring actions, which are carried out in the months prior to the burning season, which starts in June", he points out.
He points out that Acre is a state that has about 85% of its surface covered by forests, which makes monitoring fire a difficult task. "To explore these regions, we carry out the mapping with satellite data, including those from Inpe, and we gather all the information, so that we can know which areas we should focus", he says.
In the capital, Rio Branco, fire is recurrent. According to the lieutenant, in 2020 alone, 500 alerts have been recorded. When firefighters register criminal or suspected fires, the Department of Environment is called, and the complaint is forwarded to the Prosecution Office for legal proceedings. "The drone images are attached to these reports. It is through them that we obtain the necessary strength for the processes to have results. The equipment images are amazing, covering a very large area and with great quality", explains Freitas.
Federal Prosecution OfficeThe Federal Prosecution Office of the State of Acre (MP-AC), on the other hand, also uses the technology to analyze and check areas associated with complaints, as well as images of drones to make the reports more consistent, according to prosecutor Marcela Osório, general coordinator of the Technical Support Nucleus (NAT), which also has a drone donated by WWF-Brazil. "The drone is a technology that allows us to reach some places to where an analyst's travel would be more difficult and more expensive, both in terms of values and time. And there are places that are actually inaccessible. In addition, we can monitor and have access to images that we would never have with the human work of our servers alone", he says.
The prosecutor believes that, as its use is expanded in the institution, the technology will increase the quality of the information obtained, enabling the supervisory bodies of the MP-AC to make decisions with greater precision. "This equipment is also associated with new technologies related to systems, which we are also improving. These high-capacity systems help in the search, treatment and analysis of images obtained with this equipment and through satellites. These elements, added to the constant improvement of the professionals, allow us to obtain much better results", observes Marcela.
In addition to the drone, the MP-AC also received high-capacity computers from WWF-Brazil, which are essential for image processing and analysis, according to agronomist Artur Leite, coordinator of the technical-scientific nucleus of the NAT's environmental area in MP-AC. "Computers are as important as the drone. They have a large memory capacity and allow a much higher speed in deforestation reports. Compared to the machines we used previously, our processing capacity increased about 10 times", says Leite.
Assembly lineAccording to him, three MP-AC members participated in the drone piloting training given by the BPA in May this year. The equipment has already been registered with Infraero [government's corporation in charge of Brazilian airports operation] and two tests have already been carried out - in an investigation process of clandestine allotments and a reconnaissance overflight in an area of river springs.
"Even before the drone came into action, computers were already greatly improving the conditions of our work. In just two months we produced 130 reports and we are sending out a very complete material for prosecutors to take the necessary actions in their districts. In the previous conditions, it would take us at least six months to produce all these reports," explains Leite.
The MP-AC, says the agronomist, uses as a reference the maps produced by MapBiomas to locate areas of deforestation, since satellite images are considered evidence of environmental crime. With the arrival of computers, this work gained momentum. "We used to have a real hard time to download images and data related to the annual sequences of deforestation. Now we are making an assembly line, with an actual sweep in deforested areas over 10 hectares. We have already identified 560 new deforestation reports that we will prioritize in the next few months," he says.
Computers were also instrumental in processing the drone's images. "A single flight produces around 600 images to be processed. This strengthens the reports because they are images of areas to which we had no access. But having the drone without the proper computer would be like owning a Ferrari without tires", states Leite.
Robust reportingThe fight against environmental crimes will gain much more effectiveness with these resources, believes Leite, due to the consistency they give to the reports. He explained that when the MP-AC files a complaint, the Environmental Institute of Acre usually fines the offender, but the fine are often not included in the active debt collection system. "Then, the process prescribes and the offender, with his record clean again, is ready for new crimes. Without penalty, criminals feel free to act, especially because they have the incentive of the Federal Government", he says.
But the ability to obtain and process images acquired with access to new technologies is changing these procedures. When the MP-AC receives a complaint, a multidisciplinary team is sent to the field to carry out the verification and needs to produce the most complete technical report possible, based on the legislation. "With the use of the drone, we can do this much faster, and the images are unequivocal evidence of the crime. With such robust and well-founded reports, we have advanced in our capacity to pressure environmental agencies, which punish offenders, breaking the cycle of crimes," he explains.
In the urban area, the MP-AC fights crimes such as illicit allotments, illegal landfills, unlicensed sewage stations, deforestation and criminal fires. "I don't know if we will be able to reduce these crimes. But now we have more capacity to identify those responsible - and they will have a lot of trouble", concludes Leite.
Technology at the service of conservationWWF-Brazil, which has been promoting the use of drones in recent years, brings to the country an unprecedented guide and a story map on the subject, as part of a series dedicated to technology for nature conservation produced by WWF. Six professionals from the Drone Lab at the University of Exeter and the NGOs Fauna and Flora International, WWF-Germany and WWF-Brazil are co-authors of the publication, which contains information on the evolution of the use of the tool, literature review on the subject, guidance regarding carrying out mappings, operational guidelines for flight planning, data collection and analysis, as well as examples of application in WWF projects around the world. The material is mainly aimed at conservation teams, rangers, researchers, traditional communities, and indigenous peoples.
Between 2018 and 2019, WWF-Brazil trained more than 100 people in the use of drones, including protected area managers, rangers, indigenous peoples, members of traditional communities and associations from the Amazon and Cerrado. "Organizing a material like this, which provides technical information, guidance on safety and best practices, as well as examples of how drones have been used in nature conservation, is a way to share knowledge, engage and support more people in the use of this technology to that, together, we can combat the loss of biodiversity”, states Felipe Spina Avino, conservation analyst at WWF-Brazil and co-author of the guide. Avino is also one of the instructors of the drone piloting courses offered by the organization.