Tradition meets tech: Can satellite data help indigenous peoples protect their lands?

NASA satellite image of the Andes Mountains

The Andes Mountains in Bolivia, as seen from NASA’’s Landsat 7 satellite (© Jesse Allen/NASA)

From forests to fish, remote sensing has revealed an unblinking portrait at how humans are managing natural resources on Earth.

Now, a new effort seeks to put these data tools in the hands of the people on the front lines of conservation: indigenous communities.

The project carries immense potential for providing data to people who are typically cut off from it, according to Karyn Tabor of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science, which is leading the new NASA-funded project.

For that same reason, she explains, it comes with significant sensitivities as well.

Human Nature interviewed Tabor about the project as experts gathered in Washington, D.C., for GEO Week 2017, a conference on remote sensing hosted by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO).

Question: First off, what is “GEO”?

Answer: The Group on Earth Observations is a coalition of research institutes, international organizations and governments to promote what we call Earth observations, mostly satellite remote sensing, to promote sustainable development.

Q: Describe briefly what this particular project aims to do.

A: This project seeks to promote sustainable land management and indigenous rights that helps to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To put it a different way: Indigenous communities have been managing their territories using traditional methods developed over very long time periods. At the same time, their lands face new and growing pressures. If a community is trying to fight off illegal logging on their territories, for example, we want them to be able to do that effectively, and we have data and tools that may be able to help them. This is also important for indigenous groups that want to prevent deforestation to secure revenue from forest finance initiatives such as REDD+.

Q: How is this information going to be presented to indigenous groups?

A: So that’s an important question.

The project is starting out in three countries in the Americas where there are indigenous groups who manage forested areas: Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru. But we aren’t, for the most part, going to traipse into the forests to engage directly with indigenous groups. For the most part, we’re engaging instead with indigenous  organizations that work at the national level representing the concerns of communities in their country.

Q: Why is that distinction important?

A: Because we are trying to operate on their terms. We’re aware of the sensitivities of introducing new technology to communities that have a special relationship with nature. So we’re engaging with indigenous organizations that are actively seeking this kind of information and training and that already have the strongest relationships with the communities on the ground. That way, the indigenous organizations and communities can decide how to move forward. It is their decision; we’re not going to into the forest and giving them some data and saying, “Do this.”

Q: How is this project engaging with indigenous organizations?

A: This project is a collaboration with CI’s social policy and practice department, which focuses on respecting human rights and ensuring safeguards in our conservation practice. They’ve been working on this for a while to identify which groups are amenable to using this technology and to identify key decision-makers there: There is a fair amount of training and capacity-building that has to happen so people can make use of this data.

Every community that uses this is going to have different needs, so in each case we have to identify what are their needs, what are their capacities, what hurdles do they face, and what tools can we provide.

It has taken a long time to get to where we are now. We started talking about a project like this with the social policy and practice team almost three years ago, and finally we secured funding to take action.

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Q: Much has been said about including indigenous voices in global policy processes on sustainable development. How does this project do that?

A: There’s something called the Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, aimed at helping indigenous and local communities to reduce deforestation by putting project design and funding decisions in the hands of people who live in these places. We envision this project helping to put information in the hands of indigenous communities to enable them to make decisions about how to manage their lands and conserve their resources. It’s a win for nature, it’s a win for climate, and it’s a win for indigenous rights, ultimately.

Q: So this project is a way to help do that in a sensitive way.

A: Exactly. You don’t want to reinforce a power imbalance or replace traditional and indigenous peoples knowledge systems — which can happen when you introduce technology to historically marginalized groups — but at the same you want people to have access to tools and technology that can help them.

So you have to do it sensitively, and luckily, CI has a lot of experience there.

It’s been a learning experience for me, working on the tech side of things: I used to think that any technology is helpful for anyone, but now I’m learning that that’s not necessarily true. We have to be careful how and where it is applied. Ultimately, it’s driven by empowerment — we want to make technology available to empower people to achieve their goals.

Further reading

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. 

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