| remote sensing protecting rights |
Members of India’s Dongria Kondh tribe protest against a mine planned by Vedanta. Satellite images of another Vedanta mine helped to turn shareholders against the plan for evidence of wrongdoing. Ideally, these images will be held in the archives of satellite-imaging companies, but the imagery will only be available if someone else has already commissioned it, so the less attention a conflict has received, the less likely it is that images of it will exist.
If there are no archive shots, new images can be commissioned for around one sixth of the price of an archive image. ‘They cost around US$2,000 each,’ says Wolfinbarger. ‘And then when you get them back, there’s always the worry that the one village you want to look at will have a cloud over it.’
If the skies above their chosen area are clear, analysts can begin comparing the before and after shots to see how an event has transpired. In Zimbabwe in May 2005, president Robert Mugabe’s government began a campaign called Operation
It makes the world a safer place... Satellite imagery acts as a visual truth serum and forces people to react
Restore Order or Drive out Trash, in which the homes of about 700,000 people were demolished. Images taken after some of the 10,000-plus residents of Porta Farm were driven from their homes clearly showed the result. ‘You can see the square black holes on the map,’ says Lavers. ‘They are buildings whose roofs have been removed, probably through the use of fire.’
However, Bromley adds a note of caution, pointing out that although there are no longer any ‘information voids’ around the globe that can be used as ‘a hiding place for repressive governments’, in order to make the world a better place, that information still has to be acted upon, or it will simply be ‘highlighting the impunity with which they can act’. Smoke alarm In an ideal world, satellite imagery could prevent human rights or environmental abuses even occurring by sounding an alarm if anything untoward was spotted taking place. There’s no allseeing eye, as yet, but Brazil does already uses a satellite-imagelinked programme to warn Amazon land managers if unexpected deforestation is occurring in certain areas, and Lars Bromley, a geographer and geospatial information expert based at the UN, is working on a computer program that will detect conflict by using satellite data of fire occurrence. While he was carrying out his graduate research, Bromley discovered that on-the-ground fire levels in Darfur increased dramatically during the worst periods of violence to civilians, and were far higher than that which would usually be occurring at that time of year due to farming. He realised that the presence of fire was a clear indicator of homes and land being maliciously burned, and he was proved right when the UN later spotted the same pattern during conflict in Nairobi and Georgia. ‘The presence of fire doesn’t always correlate with levels of civil strife,’ says Bromley, ‘but in my experience, if you’re seeing a lot of fire, then the fighting is very likely to be having a heavy impact on civilians.’ He’s now attempting to create a model that will automatically notify the UN of fire-accompanied conflict events. ‘It’s a fantastic mathematical and technological challenge,’ says Bromley, but he acknowledges the need to be pragmatic. ‘Can I build a million-dollar system to detect conflict on the ground automatically? Yes, I probably can. But would it be wiser and more cost-effective to simply pay attention to what local people are saying in these areas? Yes, it probably is. And if it’s more cost-effective to verify local reports of conflict using satellite imagery then we’ll do that, and worry less about space-based conflict-detection systems.’
‘It was ridiculous,’ says Woodman. ‘But we were able to show shareholders satellite images of the destruction caused by the existing mine and say, “How likely do you think it is that the Dongria Kondh said that this was something they wanted on their mountain too?” It helped people realise that what we’re talking about is real. And by helping to persuade high-profile shareholders such as the Church of England to sell their shares, I think it definitely helped raise the profile of the case and save the mountain.’
Although the information gathered often needs to be ‘groundtruthed’ – combined with eyewitness reports – the resulting evidence is still strong. ‘We’re a scientific organisation, so we just produce our analysis then hand it over to advocacy organisations to use for their causes,’ says Wolfinbarger. ‘But it adds a lot of legitimacy to their reports, and our imagery is currently being used in three cases before the international courts.’
Even the lower-resolution imagery found on sites such as Google Earth can have a powerful effect. ‘An image is very persuasive and easy to understand,’ says Dr Jo Woodman, a researcher at Survival who worked on the campaign against the construction of Vedanta’s aluminium mine on a mountain in the Niyamgiri Hills in eastern India that’s sacred to the Dongria Kondh. The company claimed that it had taken Dongria leaders to the nearby Panchpatmali mine and that they were ‘amazed to see the positive impact of bauxite mining’.
i nformation vo i ds Today, there are few corners of the globe that are beyond the reach of the satellite’s eye. ‘It makes the world a safer place,’ says Brender. ‘Satellite imagery acts as a visual truth serum and forces people to react.’
.org ional internat ival
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34 www.geographical.co.uk january 2011
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