Community Drones helps Indonesia’s Dayaks protect their land.

How Drones Can Help Indigenous People Protect Their Land

How Drones Can Help Indigenous People Protect Their Land

The citizen’s guide to the future.
June 2 2015 7:30 AM

Drones to the Rescue

How unmanned aerial vehicles can help indigenous people protect their land.

An illegal logger carries a chainsaw at Kerumutan protected tropical rainforest in Indonesia.
An illegal logger carries a chainsaw at Kerumutan protected tropical rainforest, in Pelalawan district on July 12, 2014, in Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

A leader of the indigenous Dayak people of East Kalimantan’s Setulang village in Indonesia looks up to the sky, a traditional woven headdress shielding his eyes from the sun. As Saleh Uwang watches, a three-armed tricopter drone rises into the air, beginning a mapping mission that he hopes will help his community protect its access to the forest area known as “Taneh Ulen,” which the community had traditionally managed. “Straight, one kilometer!” he says, gesturing with his hand at the drone as it floats off into the distance.

Saleh Uwang’s first encounter with a drone, documented in a short video titled “Dayaks and Drones” is compelling evidence of a little-known side effect of the drone revolution: Poor people with land rights to lose have begun to realize that drones can help them. For the first time in history, even those with few resources can create their own aerial imagery using inexpensive drones, challenging official narratives that used to be controlled by a select few. The Dayaks, with the help of Indonesian geographer Irendra Radjawali, are taking full advantage of this technological shake-up. Radjawali hopes that their work will catch on in other places where people face serious threats to their land—as long as drones remain legal for the average citizen to use.

In Setulang, which is located in Indonesia’s Malinau district, the local Dayak people have long used their well-preserved culture and their attractive natural setting to their advantage, encouraging profitable ecotourism that permitted them to hold onto their preferred way of life, on their traditional forest land. Unfortunately, the Taneh Ulen forest was also attractive to loggers and palm oil companies, who have attempted to log the area since 1974. But the Setulang Dayaks were no pushovers: Over the years, they had developed a reputation for defending their land against illegal use, even confiscating the keys to logging equipment in one 2002 incident.


When a palm oil company began to illegally clear parts of the Taneh Ulen in 2009 without asking for prior permission, the Dayaks were prepared to fight back. Saleh Uwang wrote letters of protest to the company but received no response, frustrating community members and raising tension. According to Radjawali, angry members of the community eventually came together in force to attempt to drive the company off, and riot police had to be deployed to the area. 

While the company backed down in 2010, the villagers didn’t know whether the bulldozers would come back after the situation cooled off. The Setulang Dayaks, longtime veterans of the battle against illegal land usage, realized they needed to establish the boundaries of their territory, in a clear format. But first, they had to figure out how to make the map in the first place.

Local Indonesian authorities do possess satellite maps that can be viewed by the public under the auspices of Indonesia’s Freedom of Information Act. But in practice, it’s not that easy—there are bureaucratic barriers, the maps often conflict with one another, and the imagery is frequently shot at a large scale that obliterates small villages like Setulang. Hiring a manned aircraft to shoot the images, meanwhile, would be far too expensive. A drone was the Dayaks’ best bet for gathering the detailed spatial data they needed, and geographer Irendra Radjawali, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bremen in Germany, could provide it.

In mid-2014, Radjawali arrived in Setulang with his camera-equipped tricopter drone and a laptop. After talking to community members about their needs, he plotted out where the drone would fly. After liftoff, the drone shot hundreds of images in quick succession, documenting the Taneh Ulen forest, the Dayaks’ homes and traditional longhouses, and the damaged and bare areas where the palm oil company had illegally cut down trees.


Once he was finished, Radjawali’s tricopter had created a highly detailed map of Setulang, one that the Dayaks would be able to use to prove where their homes were, what their forest looked like, and where the boundaries of their land stood. If the palm oil company came back, they’d be ready for the challenge, armed with a map of their own.

Radjawali hopes citizens in many other communities make a collective choice to better document their land. The do-it-yourself drones, he says, will help indigenous people challenge government- and company-made maps, letting them produce a compelling counter-narrative. “If you have to sit together with decision-makers at any level, you need more than rhetoric,” he says, drawing on his own experience with attempting to sway government officials and corporate chiefs with environmental information. “You need arguments, and building arguments needs data first. And that means methods of collecting the data, analyzing the data.”

A longtime supporter of the land rights of indigenous people in Indonesia, Radjawali first got the idea for using drones to protect indigenous communities in 2012, as he traveled down the lengthy Kapuas River in West Kalimantan during a research trip funded by the German government. As part of the research team, he’d been tasked with observing the lifestyles of the people who live along the Kapuas, and he was shocked to see hills of red soil on the riverbanks in the heart of traditional Dayak territory, churned up by dubious bauxite mining operations.

The geographer tried to investigate the sites himself during his next trip on the Kapuas in 2013, but both intimidated locals and company officials stayed silent when he attempted to talk to them. “These big guys, they tried to prohibit me from knowing more—I’m just a little guy with glasses,” he recalls. “What I needed was pictures … to know what’s inside there.”


Recalling earlier research that he’d carried out with a camera-carrying kite, Radjawali decided after the second trip that a drone would be his best bet, allowing him to gather proof of the suspect mining activity without breaking the bank. Even better, he realized, a drone might be able to help the Dayaks to help themselves: enabling them to gather their own aerial data that could challenge the information collected by the central government.

With a limited budget to work with, Radjawali decided to make his own drone, inspired by the lively DIY Drones online community and the crop of instructional videos that had begun to pop up on the Internet in earnest in 2013. He built a quadcopter and then a tricopter, equipping each vehicle with a Canon point-and-shoot camera and configuring them so they fly by themselves, with the help of mission-planning software, instead of being directed in real time by a pilot on the ground. With a few drones finally in hand, Radjawali was able to begin his mission of helping Indonesia’s land-threatened achieve spatial transparency. And after the success in Setulang with his tricopter design, he’s interested in taking his drones on the road.

What exactly does Radjawali mean by spatial transparency? In simplest terms, it’s taking advantage of the fact that a drone affords average people the chance to gather their own data from the sky. Aerial data used to be controlled by the central government and perhaps a few powerful countries, now, it’s accessible to anyone willing to take the time to learn how to fly a drone, a not particularly difficult process.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just handing the Dayaks a drone, giving them a bit of instruction, and leaving them to gather their own aerial data. To use the drone effectively, people have to learn how to better use the data to stand up for themselves, which requires that they learn how to read maps and how to use them politically. Radjawali hopes they’ll realize that mapping is an effort that needs the input of the entire community to work: “It’s not a personal or an individual decision [to use the drone], it’s a collective decision.”  


With an eye toward helping the Dayaks and others in a similar predicament to better use the data they collect, Radjawali has helped to create the Swandiri Institute in the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak. It’s an organization devoted to gathering data and analyzing the results, creating concrete information that can be used to bolster those inevitable meetings with people in power. With support from a number of outside environmental organizations, the institute has also founded its own drone school.  

Under the auspices of Swandiri, Radjawali has traveled widely in Indonesia with his so-called Community Drones, doing mapping work elsewhere in Kalimantan and in the provinces of Bali and Papua, and spreading the spatial transparency gospel to other indigenous groups. He’s also added to his fleet, adopting a fixed-wing Skywalker UAV and a Phantom FX61 flying wing, both of which are capable of considerably longer flights than the multirotor craft—although the multirotors are still used for mapping in areas with particularly thick forest canopy.

Map of land grabbed by palm oil companies in the Sintang regency
Map of land grabbed by palm oil companies in the Sintang regency in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Courtesy of Irendra Radjawali

The mission in Setulang isn’t Community Drones’ only success story. In one recent case, Radjawali’s drones helped the Dayaks of Sanggau Regency in West Kalimantan to successfully challenge a bauxite mine in court. The drone provided proof that the mining company was illegally using water to wash its raw material, as well as carrying out this activity outside the legal bounds of its concession. The high-definition maps were hard to argue with, and an indigenous representative was able to challenge the mining company in court.

To Radjawali’s surprise, even local government has begun to embrace drone imagery. After Community Drones presented its imagery during a spatial planning process meeting in West Kalimantan, officials began to call him up, asking how they could get their own images with that degree of accuracy.

Community Drones is a rather youthful organization, and its supporters hope to expand its scope in the near future. Radjawali plans to work with local officials in Kabupaten Kayong Utara to create maps of farmland, helping local farmers to protect their land from being grabbed by business interests in nearby concessions. He’s also interested in using his drone armada along Indonesia’s vast coastline, where he thinks it can help document and prevent illegal fishing. If the Community Drones model can work well in the Dayaks’ heartland, Radjawali reasons, it’s likely to work farther afield than Indonesia. Drone technology, as Radjawali’s work evidences, isn’t just for filmmakers or bored technophiles.

Instead, inexpensive drones are accessible and useful to a surprising array of people without deep pockets, enabling them to, for the first time, gain an aerial perspective on the world that was once restricted only to a small and well-connected elite—to argue with hard evidence against the degradation of their land and lifestyles, not just with passionate rhetoric and emotion. The victories seem likely to keep coming, as long as world governments don’t rush to ban drones before the poor and the obscure put them to use. While drones may not be a cure-all for the ancient problem of land rights, the Dayaks have proved that they can certainly help level the playing field.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.