Safer From Above

By Dr. Chris Lavers

The world faces an unparalleled number of natural and, sadly, man-made humanitarian disasters. In 2004, for example, these disasters claimed tens of thousands of lives worldwide, the majority in the developing world. Over a quarter of a million people were estimated to have perished in the Boxing Day Tsunami with its epicenter off the Indonesian coast. However, the developed world is not immune to disaster; in 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced 770,000 people, destroyed 300,000 homes, and required a massive aid effort by the international community.

Current technology cannot prevent natural disasters, but space-based imagery can offer remote surveillance of man-made preventable disaster areas, critical for vulnerable groups at risk of human rights abuse. If implemented early and effectively, satellite imagery information can mitigate humanitarian disasters. Our work using high-resolution satellite imagery, particularly that provided by GeoEye’s IKONOS with data released from the GeoEye Foundation, reveals how necessary this monitoring is.

Since 2007, we have looked at how imaging may effectively support non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We first looked at how satellite imagery could provide the U.K. humanitarian charity HART with on-the-ground data for work in dangerous areas such as southern Sudan. Conflict-zone flights place pilots in added danger, especially if ground forces don’t want their operations seen, potentially by a hostile global press. In some cases, satellite imagery is the only recourse, as NGOs are effectively barred from areas. Conflicts such as in Darfur present high-risk areas for ground personnel, e.g. in November 2007,13 U.N. and NGO vehicles were hijacked and 74 aid convoys attacked, contributing to a total of 128 vehicles hijacked in 2007.

Climate change is also likely to increase the frequency of regional ethnic or resource-driven conflict. A vital challenge for confirming human rights abuse allegations is quick response to reports, often without a precise location, gathered under difficult conditions. Lack of information on the size of affected areas and distribution and numbers of peoples affected hinders effective, timely response by the international community. Situations are further complicated by governments’ unwillingness to allow NGOs and inter-governmental organizations access to verify conditions or provide humanitarian relief.

Porta Farm, Zimbabwe Wiped Out

In 2006, an imagery research grant from the GeoEye Foundation provided incontrovertible proof of alleged human rights violations in Zimbabwe, where the government destroyed an entire community in Porta Farm. Established 15 years previously from another forced eviction, Porta Farm in 2005 was a thriving community along the northern edge of Lake Chivero approximately 40km due west of Harare to the north of the main A5 trunk road.



The Zimbabwe government began Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) in May 2005. Restore Order was a program of mass forced evictions and demolition of homes and businesses. The government carried out this operation during a period of food shortage. One U.N. report estimated the number displaced to be as many as 700,000 nationwide. In late June 2005, over several days, the Zimbabwean government instituted systematic forced demolitions at Porta Farm. Local human rights monitors on the ground reported that during the demolition several deaths took place, including those of young children. Bulldozers executed the main demolition process at the end of July 2005.

Similar established communities had long been under threat in Zimbabwe. As early as May 20, 1997 conclusions by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recommended “that appropriate measure be taken in order to more effectively guarantee the right to housing and in particular to ensure that no forced evictions are carried out without alternative housing being offered.” Sadly this measure has not been enacted.

The GeoEye Foundation provided multispectral images of the target location of Porta Farm (coordinates latitude -17.8, longitude 30.8). We used GeoEye satellite imagery and new image processing methods, previously applied to astronomy data, to enhance imagery quality and quantify the extent of the demolished area, number of dwellings destroyed, approximate number of people directly affected by displacement, and the dwelling density. We used a simple image-processing package to optimize the contrast from extracted images. The resolution of the panchromatic black-and-white image from IKONOS is one meter, sufficient to provide detailed quality mapping of the selected area.

Researchers are currently working to confirm the number of dwellings lost and generate a map specifying destroyed buildings. The high-resolution imaging depicts buildings and streets, which enables easy interpretation and will serve as the baseline for future detailed mapping and assist in studying other areas, including Malakal in Sudan. The study has also noted reductions in lake sediment due to loss of small-scale farming. The benefits of using detailed imagery in one location to confirm human rights abuse allegations, specifically internally displaced people due to the policies of a government, become clear.

Mining Environmental Issues in Grasberg, West Papua

A second case study revolves around the rapid growth of the Freeport mine at Grasberg and failures to address human rights and environmental protection issues. The Grasberg mine is operated by Rio Tinto, a 40-percent venture partner with Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold (FMX) in West Papua (Irian Jaya). For the Amungme tribe, reduction of beautiful Mount Grasberg, one of the largest Sudirman range peaks, to a vast hole in the ground, has been devastating.

One benefit of satellite imagery is that it provides immediate access to inaccessible regions for external international human rights organizations. Some Amungme and Kamoro tribes were forcefully relocated, with thousands of indigenous people removed from traditional farming and food gathering territory. Moving Amungme tribes to the lowlands brought people without natural malarial immunity into contact with mosquitoes, resulting in higher mortality rates. In April 1995, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid and the Jayapura Catholic Church documented that the Indonesian military had killed and tortured dozens suspected of protesting against the mine. Satellite imagery acquisition is certainly safer for investigators, as two American journalists were shot dead approaching the mine in 2007, and the peace-promoting leader of the Papuan opposition Kelly Kwalik was shot dead near the mine in December 2009 just before Christmas.

The enormous Grasberg copper and gold mine, at over 2.6 million hectares, comprises several climate-sensitive ecosystems: alpine meadow, wetlands, and mangrove forest, and it is considered by some to be the worst environmental case of any mining project worldwide. Damage caused by the mine to the environment has impaired the abilities of thousands of Amungme and Komoro, traditional owners of mine sites and river areas, to access food and clean water or to sustain cultural practices. Sources claim the mine now dumps in excess of an estimated 230,000 tons of industrial waste daily into the Ajikwa River, a sediment load many times that of the original background silt levels. Sediment transport has deoxygenated the Ajikwa River, killing fish and plant life. Tribesmen are not supposed to live within close proximity of the highly polluted water but in practice may return to traditional areas and livelihoods.

Thousands of tons of waste rock are also dumped in nearby alpine valleys, where high rainfall and erosion further lead to fine material moving downstream, releasing poisonous heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium into the river and causing high copper levels, which are toxic to aquatic organisms. River rainforest damage has been drastic; deposition has caused the Ajikwa to change its course and flood hectares of tropical forest and sago trees (a staple food for poor native inhabitants). Nearby alpine glaciers, among the closest to the equator (latitude -4.17) and considered sensitive markers of climate change, have exhibited large area loss between 2000 and 2002.

Sensitivity of this region to climate change over such a short time is disturbing, but glacial loss has been previously noted in long-term trends by other researchers. However, it may now include complex wind pattern alterations around the mine due to deforestation. Similar air pattern changes have been reported in Kilimanjaro’s low foothills due to deforestation. Tropical glaciers have been in recessional retreat over the past century and are now experiencing increasingly higher rates of recession. Most tropical glaciers are small, generally under 0.5 square km. Such small size reduces their response times to climate change, and their mass balances represent current climate trends. When the mine is viewed close up at 1m panchromatic resolution, detailed mine workings are seen, such as identifiable mining equipment and vehicles or processing buildings.

The U.K. company bears some responsibility for the devastation caused by the mine, specifically its river tailing system, a fact acknowledged by Norway’s pension fund when it disinvested from Rio Tinto in 2008, having previously disinvested from Freeport due to the unacceptable risks posed by the mine. However, the main burden of culpability lies with Freeport.

The West Papua study shows that high-resolution satellite remote sensing can reveal where mineral extraction without deforestation and good environmental practices may occur and help to identify surface mineral resources. Our research will look at water in this region and its hyperspectral properties to attempt to verify pollution chemical fingerprints.
Dr. Chris Lavers, PhD, is a team leader and senior lecturer in remote sensing, thermal imagery, and stealth in the faculty of Plymouth University at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Devon, England. His work in monitoring human rights abuse is recognized internationally, and he advocates developing civilian applications from the military sphere in a “swords to plowshares” approach.

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