Satellites spot hidden villages in Amazon

Image from DigitalGlobe

Satellites spot hidden villages in Amazon

The Amazon is home to perhaps dozens of isolated tribes who make their living far off the grid from the wider society, growing crops and hunting and gathering in the forest. These reclusive peoples are threatened by drug running, illegal logging, and highway construction, even if they dwell in “protected” reserves in Peru or Brazil; one group, apparently pushed out of its lands, made contact this summer. Now, researchers have a new way of examining their fate without disruptive and frightening flyovers by aircraft. In a study published today in Royal Society Open Science, researchers use high-resolution WorldView or GeoEye satellite images to monitor demographic changes in isolated Amazon tribes. The scientists got location and population estimates for five isolated villages along the Brazil-Peru border from Brazilian government reports and other sources. Then they examined 50-centimeter resolution satellite images taken in 2006, 2012, and 2013 and could spot the peoples’ horticultural fields and characteristic pattern of either longhouses or clusters of small houses, shown above; these villages could be clearly differentiated from the transient camps of illegal loggers or drug runners. The images revealed demographic change over time. In just 14 months, between May 2012 and July 2013, for example, the inhabitants of a 2-decade-old village known as Site H cleared 16 hectares of forest to make new fields, bringing the total cultivated area to about 28 hectares. Such rapid growth may be due to indigenous families fleeing to Site H from their traditional lands, the researchers note. At about this time, loggers and would-be farmers from the outside world began pushing into the region on a road only 30 kilometers away.

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