The Tayan Hilir tribe of West Kalimantan almost lost its lands to a commercial concession area because of unclear and overlapping directives. To save their 300-hectare land, the Tayan Hilir people turned to drone technology with amazing results. Drones may be a hobby for some, but for the tribesmen in Kalimantan, the drone has been their live saver. In little more than a year, the Tayan Hilir people were able to map their land— thanks to photographs taken by a drone. The data was the basis of their claims at the Constitutional Court, which approves evidence resulting from pictures taken by drones. They are expected to provide more proof of environmental destruction in forested areas. A Tempo English report.

An aerial shot of Bukit Sebayan, a fertile zone of  green hills in the Tayan community forest area of  West Kalimantan, can be seen on a laptop. Pius, who is the chief of Sejotang village, in the Tayan Hilir subdistrict, is in a hurry to finish mapping the customary land. “From 300 hectares, 100 have already been partitioned,” he told Tempo three weeks ago.

According to the 35-year-old man, finishing the mapping is an urgent matter: Large swaths of forest are being handed out to palm oil companies and miners, and rampant bauxite mining has turned the lake into a veritable wasteland.

Sigit Nugroho, head of  the entrepreneurial development division of the West Kalimantan Energy and Mining Office, acknowledged that runaway land concessions had become a problem. “This is a consequence of incomplete mapping and little coordination between the regional government and central government,” he said.

Initially, it was difficult for residents  to map their lands. The forest area was just too big. “The borders of customary regions used to be taken for granted by tribal communities,” said Julian, secretary to the Dayak Customary Council. At beginning of 2014, the council began receiving help from the Swandiri Institute, a non-profit research organization focused on sustainable environment. Now, using drones of the chopper or sky-walker variety, a full third of the area’s customary lands have been mapped.

Hermawansyah, director of  Swandiri  Institute, said drones were able to create clearer imaging of soil layers compared to satellite imaging. “Drones can fly low, so that the land can be wellrecorded. When satellite imaging is employed, you can see only from hundreds [of meters] from above,” he said.

Kasmita Widodo, the one time head of  the Indonesian  Community Mapping Network (JKPP) and current head of   the national indigenous network’s board or registered indigenous areas (AMAN-BRWA), agrees that drones could speed up the process of mapping customary areas, though it cannot replace intense discussions among communities. “To me, using drones to create maps help create a high-resolution base map quickly but it is still essential to have local people identify the culturally important points on the land,” he said.

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It all started with research undertaken by Irendra Radjawali, or Radja, in 2012. This Ph.D candidate from the Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of Bonn was then doing a research on the politics of ecology in the Kapuas River basin. Together with two colleagues, the 39-year-old made their first boat trip down the 1,400 kilometer length of the river, to survey research sites.

Two-thirds of the way downstream, near Sanggau, Tayan, they noticed a big pile of clay on the riverbank which came from a mining site. When they stepped ashore to investigate, they were met with a ‘restricted access’ sign. “It was our right to know, in my opinion, to fulfill our needs as researchers. We weren’t ‘entering’ their area. We just wanted the data. And I wanted to know what was going on there,” he said.

Elsewhere, residents had been complaining of disappearing  lands. “The land behind my house now belongs to an oil palm plantation who received it as a concession,” one resident said.

With environmentalist and friend Hermawansyah, he founded the Swandiri Institute to defend the community forest’s interests. However, he wanted to differentiate himself from other environmental groups whose actions he deemed merely rhetorical. “We have to fight with real data,” he explained.

Hermawansyah was of the same mind. He  was anxious to find out the source of the forest’s devastation. “Tayan is one of the centers for extractive industrial activities, especially bauxite,” he said. In West Kalimantan there are 721  mining concessions covering an area of five million hectares. In Tayan alone, 18 companies have permits to mine.

After striking an agreement with the Dayak Customary Council, Radja looked for the best way to map the vast area. He  remembered a friend who had once mapped the coastline of the Spermonde Islands of South Sulawesi with a camera tied to a kite. But he hesitated. “That was at sea. The Kapuas River is too long. The string would not be able to cover the whole breadth of the area.”

The easiest way was to use Google Maps or satellite imaging.  But the images available for free were too low-resolution to derive data from. And for those images that were high-resolution, there was a paywall, and the data was likely old. After surfing the internet, Radja came upon the idea of a drone. “Initially I wanted to make a direct purchase. But once I saw the exorbitant price, I backed off,” he said. At that time, drones could sell for about Rp 1 billion.

He hit another dead-end in discussions with Bandung Institute of Technology alumni from the department of  aeronautical engineering. The drone they built cost Rp 350 million. “But then I went to the best university on earth, YouTube! And realized that you could make drones on your own.”

Together with Arif Munandar, a friend and fellow Swandiri Institute researcher, Radja built a drone using Styrofoam and a replica of a US model. With painstaking attention to detail, the two were able to build a drone for just Rp 6 million. “With this gadget, we can finally map out difficult-to-reach areas and assess how much concession land overlaps with the Tayan customary forest,” Hermawansyah said.

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MAPPING out the customary forest by drone is no easy task, however. The Tayan Hilir area has limited electricity and lacks a cellular phone network. Besides lugging along the two drones, batteries, charger, and a ground control system (GCS)—a program that was downloaded to monitor the location of drones—they were obliged to bring their own power generator. The drone’s batteries, made of lithium, lasts for only an hour.

Weather conditions matter a great deal. “Before we release a drone, we have to make sure the weather is really clear,” Arif said. If the weather is cloudy, the Global Positioning System (GPS) signal from the drone to the GCS will encounter problems. The drone could fly off-route, away from the given coordinates. In a single operation, the team can map about 60-70 hectares of land.

In their very first session, the Swandiri Institute team lost track of their drone due to signal disturbance. “All of a sudden the weather turned bad and the drone flew off track,” Arif said. “What can we do if contacts are no longer available? Looking for a lost drone amid a thick forest is impossible.”

Determining coordinates is an important part of mapping. The Swandiri Institute trains village youngsters to mark them using the GPS.  They also document the locations with a digital camera and camera phone. Locations are linked together and turned into flying route for the drone. Photographs are collaged in the computer as intact digital images.

The institute  has  already  trained  about  20 youths. “Although they are familiar with cellular phones, it still takes them time to master a more sophisticated technology like the GPS,”  Hermansyah said. Only after three meetings they are dispatched into the field.

When it comes to flying drones or mapping, however, the Swandiri Institute takes the reins. Researcher Happy Hendrawan hopes the participatory mapping can be adopted by the local government.

In the near future, residents will meet with the Sanggau regency  Legislative Council  (DPRD)   to discuss the fate of the customary forests of the Sejotang and Subah villages. “A prerequisite for the acknowledgement of customary forest is a regional regulation,” Happy said. Sigit said the government was likely to support the mapping of customary forest by drones. “It [also] helps us supervise the mining in the area,” he said.

Tayan locals achieved a small victory when maps of the forest were accepted as evidence in a case concerning the Association of Indonesian Mineral Businessmen (Apemindo) and its obligation to build a smelter in line with Law No. 4/2009 on minerals and coal at the Constitution Court.

Salvius Seko, chairman of the Dayak Customary Council of  West Kalimantan, who was presented as a witness, argued the Semendu Lake in the Tayan Customary Forest had become a repository for bauxite waste due to the lack of a smelter. The photographs, he said, proved it.

The court agreed, and the pictures became the basis of the decision to reject a judicial review requested by Apemindo. “Photographs as evidence have often been used in cases at the Constitution Court, but this is probably the the first time drone photos have been used,” Hermansyah said.

NEWS of  the judge’s decision spread to North Kayong, some 500 kilometers from the Tayan Hilir area. The local government requested the Swandiri Institute’s help to use its drones to produce a tourism promotion video ahead of the 2016 Sail Karimata event, which is expected to attract tourists by the droves.

“The making of the video, which lasted for three days, was restricted to the islands of  Maya and Karimata,” Arif said. The aim was simple: to showcase the natural beauty of coastal areas. North Kayong Regent Hildi Hamid hopes to use drones to map out the remote islands of his district in the near future. “Promoting our region is still necessary. Even the people of West Kalimantan do not quite under- stand their own region.”

Arif said he hoped to expand the drone-mapping operation. With funding from the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, a transparency  agency for extractive companies, the institute has built 13 drones and has initiated new mapping projects in remote areas of  Bali, Papua and East Nusa Tenggara. “We want to keep lending a helping hand to people who have problems with companies concerning land ownership and land use, and to push the government to protect the environment, taking into account existing evidence.”

Due to the enthusiasm of the people, the Swandiri Institute has established the Drone School in provincial capital Pontianak. Instructors teach people how to assemble and fly drones. It has no building, however. “So, if someone wants to learn, he or she must come to our office,” Hermansyah said.

Source: Tempo English