A small group of Indigenous women in northern Guyana are the latest weapon in the fight against climate change in this South American country where 90% of the population lives below sea level.

Armed with drones, the women are scanning mangrove forests for illegal cutting and expect to soon start collecting soil samples and mangrove litter to measure the carbon held in remote coastal ecosystems that have long been out of reach for scientists. Such data could nudge the government to create policies and programs to protect critical areas.

“We are merging traditional knowledge and scientific research to get all this information that we need but never had before and couldn’t afford to get,” said Annette Arjoon-Martins, head of Guyana’s Marine Conservation Society.

The women’s work is considered key for Guyana, a small nation about the size of Britain that has a 285-mile-long (459 kilometers) coastline whose coastal plains lie an average of 6 feet (2 meters) below sea level. The coastline depends on a centuries-old sea defense system created by the Dutch during the colonial era. It includes a 280-mile (450-kilometer) seawall and relies on dozens of workers who set alarms night and day to manually open and close sluice gates known as “kokers” that prevent the Atlantic Ocean from flooding Guyana.

By the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank already was advising Guyana to relocate communities inland since most of its 791,000 people live along the coast, and much of its economic activity and agriculture are based there. But people have been reluctant to leave.

A World Bank report has cautioned that “the impact of rising sea levels and intensified storm surges in Guyana would be among the greatest in the world, exposing 100% of the country’s coastal agriculture and 66.4% of coastal urban areas to flooding and coastal erosion.”

The community of Almond Beach in northern Guyana was forced to relocate several years ago after the ocean swallowed line after line of palm trees and began to lap at the school and other infrastructure, Arjoon-Martins said. Some 280 people once lived there; barely three dozen remain after a swath of land slipped underwater, she said.

Environmentalists say the work of the young Amerindian women will help them understand the challenges Guyana faces and what it can do to fight climate change as it prepares to become one of the world’s largest offshore oil producers.

By the end of the year, the women hope to start collecting data on how much carbon the coastal ecosystems around their villages are storing.