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LightHawk Project Aims To Preserve Panama's Tropical Forest

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LightHawk, a nonprofit group that uses airplanes to promote environmental-protection efforts, has recently been working in Panama to help an indigenous group trying to protect their land. The Wounaan have lived along Panama's Pacific Coast for generations, says LightHawk, and have proved to be able stewards of the tropical forest, preserving some of the region's last intact ecosystems. But recently, cattle ranchers and loggers have encroached on their traditional territories, causing conflict and damaging the forest. LightHawk stepped in to help, providing a volunteer pilot who took officials and a photographer aloft for a bird's-eye view of the forest's destruction.

For the photo flight, Stephanie Wells, a LightHawk pilot from Colorado, took along Christian Ziegler, one of the founders of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Ziegler donated more than 700 aerial photographs to the effort, which will be used to develop new maps of Wounaan territories and provide footage for a documentary about the conflict. For the second flight, Wells brought together indigenous leaders with the government officials who have the power to protect their land. From the air, the officials were able to view the full impact of the damage to the forest. The ultimate goal, says LightHawk, is to preserve the region's rich biodiversity.

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