“Ultimately, satellite imagery, expertly interpreted, increases transparency.”
Area of the “Kruger’s contested borderlands” investigative story.

Satellite Imagery in Support of Land Rights in Mozambique

By Radiant.Earth Editorial Team

Geospatial data and the expertise to interpret it can be helpful to journalists who are researching and reporting complex stories, such as the movements of populations at the intersection of land rights, ecotourism, and political power.

Contentious land development on the Mozambican side of the border with South Africa was billed as a way to protect rhinos and elephants from poachers while providing jobs for the local Cubo community and water for their cattle. However, according to the local villagers, it turned into a land grab by South African conservationists and tourism businesses, aided by corrupt politicians, bribes, and false promises. As a result, the villagers say, they were moved off of the newly created reserves, which are part of a vast ecosystem joined to the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

“The people interviewed could be fabricating stories, but satellites images do not lie.”

Estacio Valoi, a journalist for Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, interviewed the villagers and the developers and wrote an article detailing their conflicting claims and the history of this dispute. He partnered with Code for Africa, africanDRONE, African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR), and Radiant.Earth. Valoi’s team included a drone operator, a videographer, a data researcher, and four experts in data visualization.

Radiant.Earth helped contextualize the story by providing satellite imagery and analysis of that imagery to detect change. The analysis of satellite images shows that in the Limpopo National Park, on the Mozambican side of the border, several settlements disappeared within three to 12 months. Some 2,000 families have been moved, while about 13,300 families still living inside the park are awaiting resettlement. The team had already pieced together the story based on its independent research and interviews but needed verification through satellite imagery to make it more compelling.

Comparing the two images side-by-side, satellite imagery shows how community settlements have been erased from Limpopo National Park. Image analysis by Radiant.Earth

Tricia Govindasamy, a geographic information system analyst and data researcher at Code for Africa, gave the coordinates of the study area to Radiant.Earth, which searched satellite imagery for relevant changes over time, such as communities disappearing or significant changes in land use. Radiant.Earth analyzed Landsat, Sentinel, Airbus and other high resolution imagery found on Google Earth Engine, and sent the final files back to Govindasamy who examined the images to find the locations that had experienced the most considerable change.

“Radiant.Earth gave us a big overview, and then I narrowed it down,” she says. “The people interviewed could be fabricating stories, but satellites images do not lie.”
In pursuing land rights stories, the most difficult is gathering the evidence. “We are dealing with a large study area,” says Govindasamy. “It would have taken us weeks or months to go section-by-section and find the areas of change. Radiant.Earth cut that time down enormously by narrowing down the areas and finding the most relevant images for us.”

To further help readers understand the population shifts, Code for Africa also created a slider tool that they can use to visualize the changes visible in the satellite images. By sliding a vertical bar across an area, readers can compare pictures of it at two points in time. “We train many journalists, researchers, and government workers in the use of data,” says Govindasamy.

Additionally, Govindasamy points out; her team was able to collaborate internationally on this project. “Someone in the United States sent us a file that I was able to use in South Africa to create a story about something that is happening in Mozambique.”

Ultimately, satellite imagery, expertly interpreted, increases transparency. In most cases, this works on the side of those with the least political power. Non-governmental organizations can now use Earth observation to help the public understand what is happening on the ground.

The Kruger’s contested borderlands story exemplifies the need for Earth observation (EO) data — and the ability to analyze the data — to be more accessible to people working on issues for the global good. Founded in 2016, Radiant.Earth is a response to calls by the global development community to improve the discovery of Earth imagery, as well as expand collaboration and capacity building among practitioners and innovators worldwide. Radiant.Earth provides an open technology platform that connects people to the vast resources of Earth imagery, geospatial datasets, tools, and EO knowledge.

In this short clip, displaced communities share their story.

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