Monitoring Human Rights from Space

Dec 10, 2018 · 10 min read

By Andrew Zolli, Vice President of Global Impact, Planet

In honor of International Human Rights Day.

For all of the progress of the past century, ending human rights abuse remains one of the most vexing challenges of the modern world.

The denial of another person’s full humanity is an intimate form of violence, targeting the powerless, the voiceless, and the impoverished. Abuse thrives in the shadows and can be difficult to detect; though it is often the consequence of imbalances so culturally ingrained that it hides in plain sight.

Every significant action on the Earth leaves its mark, however — and new remote sensing technologies allow us to detect at least some of the signals of human rights abuses, and monitor the systems that produce them, in ways that weren’t possible even a few years ago. In fields and factories around the world, men, women and children toil without rights, recourse, or dignity — yet many of their labors are visible, in the aggregate, from space. Others are scattered from their homes by conflict, crisis, traffickers, or the actions of hostile governments. Some of this migration and detention is likewise detectable.

The tools of Earth observation and advanced analytics can provide powerful new tools to the humanitarian and human rights community, enabling new forms of advocacy, accountability and action. For the past two years, Planet has supported leading human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and worked with academic researchers like the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham to explore what’s possible. At the recently concluded Trust Conference, we shared some examples of what we’re learning together.

Taking Slavery out of Supply Chains

While precise statistics are notoriously difficult to determine, officials estimate 40 million people currently live in slavery worldwide. An assessment by the Rights Lab suggests that about a third of this is detectable in some form from space — particularly slavery that occurs at sites within commodity supply chains, such as in stone quarries, brick kilns, fisheries, mines, forests and construction sites.

For example, across south Asia, there is a vast “Brick Belt” — a network of tens of thousands of brick kilns that employ some 23 million workers across India, Nepal, and Pakistan. According to a comprehensive 2017 report on the Indian portion of the Brick Belt by Anti-Slavery International and Volunteers for Social Justice, this system is rife with debt-bondage and child slavery. Two thirds of local children, between the ages of five to fourteen, reported working in the brick kilns, some for up to nine hours a day.

Child laborer in India’s brick kilns is endemic. Source: Slavery in India’s Brick Kilns / Anti-Slavery International and Volunteers for Social Justice

Researchers at the Rights Lab recently used satellite imagery and machine learning techniques to map the entire Brick Belt in unprecedented detail. This high-resolution map reveals the kiln system as a whole for the first time:

The Brick Belt. Source: The University of Nottingham Rights Lab

The next step for the Nottingham researchers is to add a time-axis to this map, to see how seasonal patterns of life and production shape the system. “Planet’s daily imagery will allow us to understand the Brick Belt’s dynamics,” said Doreen Boyd, a principal researcher at the Rights Lab. “We will be able to see the not just the presence, but the behavior of these kilns — how and when they operate. That will let government and NGOs target interventions more effectively, and see whether those interventions are working.”

Other commodity production systems have similarly observable dynamics. Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa beans — the raw material for chocolate — are cultivated in West Africa, specifically Ghana and Ivory Coast, which is the world’s largest producer. The world’s voracious demand for chocolate has become the major driver of deforestation in the country, not only on private lands but also within its national parks and conservation lands.

This dramatic shift in land use has created a compound humanitarian, environmental, and conservation catastrophe. More than 2.1 million children across West Africa — one in five children in Ivory Coast alone — are involved in hazardous labor associated with harvesting cocoa, using machetes and hauling 100-pound bags of beans. Thousands of additional children are trafficked to Ivory Coast to engage in this work, often from other former French colonies such as Mali and Burkina Faso, and held as slave laborers. The resulting forest degradation also brings habitat loss for wildlife, especially chimpanzees and elephants, whose populations have been decimated. (Ivory Coast was named for its famed, vast elephant populations, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now only a few hundred remain.) And given the forests’ critical role in sequestering carbon, their loss is a significant blow to efforts to arrest global climate change.

A young boy uses a machete to break cocoa pods in Ivory Coast. Source: Fortune Magazine, Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem. Image Credit: Benjamin Lowy.

A 2017 investigative report by Mighty Earth, Chocolate’s Dark Secret, has begun to illuminate the movement of cocoa illegally harvested in Ivory Coast’s protected areas (again, typically with the help of slave labor) into the global cocoa supply chain:

Mapping the supply chain for the illegal cocoa harvest in Ivory Coast, often child slave labor. Source: Mighty Earth Chocolate’s Dark Secret.

A coalition of global chocolate companies such as Nestle and Cadbury, which are collectively responsible for the $100+ billion/year market for chocolate, have recently announced new plans to reduce slavery in the cocoa supply chain in Ivory Coast and Ghana 70% by 2020. Key to those efforts will be more effective enforcement of illegal cultivation and incentives to grow higher-yield crops, which require less land.

But this plan will require significant monitoring if it has any hope of success. Thankfully, Planet’s satellites can precisely track cacao-related deforestation and the cacao harvest in close to real-time. Here, for instance, is deforestation occurring within one of the most important protected forests in Ivory Coast, the Haut Sassandra Classified Forest, over just a few weeks in the April and May 2018:

Deforestation within the Haut Sassandra Classified Forest — April/May 2018. Source: Planet Labs, Inc.

This kind of monitoring will be an essential tool to help supply chain actors who want to improve their human-rights performance, and validate that promises are being kept.

Keeping Communities Resilient

Cocoa-related slavery in Ivory Coast is a complex and pernicious problem, underwritten by a toxic mix of factors: extreme poverty, environmental degradation, powerful economic incentives, a legacy of recent conflict, limited social protections and inconsistent governance. Many human rights crises around the world share this architecture: a corrosive mix of social and ecological stressors that erode local resilience and increase the vulnerability of populations to exploitation.

In this context, one of the most powerful ways satellites can help protect human rights is to enable new forms of social and environmental protections which boost resilience to disruptions — by keeping social and ecological systems healthy.

For example, the World Bank estimates that more than 140 million people — mostly living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America — may become climate migrants by 2050. Climate change will trigger crop failure, water scarcity, and sea-level rise, creating climate migrants. Along the way, they’ll be acutely susceptible to exploitation.

Yet the same report notes that, with concerted action, this number could be reduced by up to 100 million –more than 80%. The key to doing so will be developing tools that help communities adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Here again satellite data can be helpful. Rural smallholder farmers, who grow nearly 70% of the world’s food, are vulnerable to climate-exacerbated crop failures, through the increased prevalence of droughts, invasive pests, and severe storms. Planet is working with researchers at Stanford, in work supported by the Global Innovation Fund, to develop and scale new approaches to predicting smallholder crop yields using satellite imagery and machine learning. These kinds of predictive analytics may, help inform climate-smart agricultural policies, digital information services, microinsurance, and other services that will help smallholders become more resilient to climate disruptions, and hopefully never become climate migrants at all.

Our satellite data can help vulnerable populations in other ways too. Many poor and vulnerable people have incomplete or informal tenure over their land — they live in a place they have long occupied, but may not formally “own”. Land registries, which formalize these relationships, are often antiquated and susceptible to corruption, abuse, and loss or destruction of records. (The 2010 Haitian earthquake, for example, killed thousands of civil servants and destroyed an untold number of title deeds and land registry records, hindering reconstruction for years afterward.)

Contested or insecure land rights are at the center of many pressing development and human rights issues, including poverty reduction, food security, conflict, urbanization, gender equality, and climate migration. People with inadequate land rights can be forcibly evicted without recourse. They typically are unable to borrow against the value of their property to invest in its upkeep, improve its climate-resilience, or otherwise lift themselves from poverty. And without accurate land-tenure records, governments can’t properly protect occupants, or appropriately assess taxes to pay for critical infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals. According to the World Bank, the problem in rural Africa is particularly acute: only 10% of rural lands are registered with consequences that fall hardest on women farmers.

Continuously-updated satellite imagery provides a unique tool in this context — an independent means for capturing the truth of land occupancy, tenure and change. When integrated with technologies like blockchain and other secure databases, satellite imagery present the tantalizing potential of a low-cost, secure, independent, digitized ledger of land tenure — something akin to a secure, digital, tamper-resistant deed — for people who live there informally. It’s little wonder experimental registries based on these technologies have already popped up in more than a half-dozen countries.

These kinds of tools are a key form of 21st-century social protection — practical means of protecting human rights and providing needed services to the most vulnerable and exploitable.

Documenting Acute Crises and Driving Accountability

Finally, Planet imagery can be used to independently document and monitor the actions of governments and other actors, creating new forms of human rights accountability.

Since the early 2000s, human rights organizations have increasingly relied on earth observation data to help document abuses, especially in circumstances when physical access is restricted by a government or when it is simply too dangerous to reach the affected community.

Satellite imagery is also used to corroborate witness testimony by matching details of events and locations from survivors with what investigators can observe from space. At a time when governments and the public are increasingly skeptical about testimony from marginalized communities, satellite technology is more important than ever to help expose human rights abuses and hold perpetrators accountable.

As satellite technology continues to rapidly evolve, so too do the potential applications for human rights research. While other companies continue to chase after ever-smaller pixels, one of the unique ways Planet contributes to the human rights movement is through our ability to image the entire world every day.

For example, in the Fall of 2017, our partners at Human Rights Watch used Planet data to document the exact timing of Burmese military attacks on Rohingya villages in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. In one case, a single satellite image scene revealed building fires and smoke plumes in at least seven villages along the coast in Maungdaw Township on the morning of 15 September 2017.

Satellite imagery reveals building fires and smoke plumes in Rohingya villages in Myanmar. Source: Human Rights Watch. Image Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.

“In most cases, what we really need is satellite data to help establish exactly when something happened” said Josh Lyons of Human Rights Watch. “Of course, showing building destruction in Burma, for example, with very high-resolution satellite imagery can be a powerful advocacy tool. But if the images are old or spaced too far apart in time, we can’t use it to validate witness testimony or determine responsibility for a specific attack.”

In early 2018, Human Rights Watch again used Planet data this time to carefully document the demolition of Rohingya villages by the Burmese military in Maungdaw township. Daily Planet coverage over the affected area not only provided unique insights about the timing and speed of demolition, but also made it possible to dramatically to show the demolition as a time-series animation.

Documentation of the Destruction of Rohingya Villages in Myanmar in early 2018. Source: Human Rights Watch. Image Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.

“The military were literally trying to erase Rohingya villages off the map with bulldozers. They may have destroyed some physical evidence of their war crimes, but they can’t erase the satellite record.” said Josh Lyons.

“The unprecedented temporal resolution of the Dove constellation is providing the human rights community with new analysis and monitoring capabilities that simply did not exist before.” Lyons continued.

Unfortunately, many of the underlying drivers of human rights abuse are not trending well. Economic dislocation has fostered a permanent underclass in many communities around the world, ripe for exploitation. The disruptions of climate change are being visited disproportionately on the poor, and on women and girls in particular. Poverty, environmental stress and conflict are widely understood to be closely interconnected. And resurgent nationalism in wealthy countries has disenfranchised minorities and politicized migration. All of which suggests the 21st century will know its share of humanitarian crises.

Yet new technologies like satellite imagery and AI will also allow us to see, understand and intervene in these contexts with unprecedented speed and agility — reducing and even preventing human suffering, and creating new means of accountability. We believe they can super-charge the humanitarian and human rights sectors, allowing them to create more targeted and effective interventions. We are excited to work with the sector to make that happen.

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