Entries tagged with “pastoralism”.


The Satellite Sentinel Project released a report the other day that detailed what appears to be violence in the villages of Maker Abior and Todach in the Abeyei region of Sudan.  The imagery in the report is fairly standard DigitalGlobe 60cm stuff – and nothing fancy has been done to it to enhance analysis – it’s not clear if the imagery is even georectified, though given its largely illustrative use it probably doesn’t matter.  In the images are clearly burned buildings, and what certainly appear to be fortified areas where the Sudan Armed Forces are moving in equipment, fortifying defenses and improving storage facilities.  They claim to have imagery related to a parallel buildup of forces on the South Sudan side of the border.

But what do these images really tell us that good, on-the-ground intelligence does not?  Nothing.  In fact, I would argue that these images might be leading to unwarranted conclusions . . . or the Satellite Sentinel Project needs to do a much better job of explaining how the imagery enhances their conclusions.  For example:

  • How are the structures on the South Sudan side of the border representative of military buildup? Do they share a construction or layout with other known military encampments? Or is this conclusion completely supplied by on-the-ground intelligence?  If the answer is the latter, what exactly to these images add to the analysis?
  • How are the burned structures in Maker Abior and Todach linked to the military buildup in the subsequent pictures? There is no imagery of an attack in progress – and there will likely never be this sort of smoking gun evidence from this project. Data is gathered irregularly, and often at fairly wide intervals – so what you will end up with are a lot of before and after photos that can only be explained by on the ground intelligence.  In this case, it seems the on-the-ground intelligence has provided (at best) a weak link between this buildup and whatever happened in Maker Abior and Todach . . . but in presenting the imagery in this sort of a sequence, it appears that the evidence for the connection is much stronger than the data allows.

These are major issues that the project should be thinking through carefully.  Inadvertent misrepresentation of events on the ground will greatly damage not only this project’s legitimacy, but indeed any efforts to use remotely sensed data to identify/verify events on the ground in this region.

Please note: I am NOT suggesting that there is no violence in the region, or that what is happening isn’t hugely problematic.  However, I want our interpretations and responses to be based upon clear evidence, not loose circumstantial data strung together into potentially flimsy arguments about what has happened, and what might happen next.

So, what can we do about the problems in this region with this sort of data?  Well, for one thing the project might think about how to use its considerable remotely-sensed imagery resources to fill some significant gaps in data and interpretation about the political economy of natural resources in this region. Abeyei has a long history of conflict between different groups using natural resources for their livelihoods – especially conflicts that occur when pastoral/semipastoral groups move their cattle through agricultural areas, damaging fields (this is a thin distinction – really, most everyone in this region makes a living through a mixture of pastoralism and agriculture. The question is which group’s crops are impacted by the other’s cattle.).  This may be one of the most significant challenges facing this region – how to address this ongoing challenge, especially once there is a border dividing the transhumance routes these different groups have used to move their cattle to new watering and feeding areas.  Given the potential impact of a border on these routes, and therefore access to needed natural resources, we’ve already seen the Dinka to the south and the Messiriya to the north laying out territorial and resources claims far in excess of any previously recognized situation.  It is nearly impossible to adjudicate these claims because, as my colleague David Decker at the University of South Carolina – Sumter has argued, there is very little literature on the political ecology of this region.  The bulk of our understanding of natural resources, livelihoods and political economy that we do have are derived from colonial accounts more than a half century old.  With good intelligence, some serious on-the-ground research and the mobilization of people like David, and the integration of satellite imagery of the region that we can use to analyze (no more pretty pictures, just serious analysis) things like land cover, soil moisture, biomass, etc. we might at least create a stopgap for this knowledge gap that can then enable a settlement in this area that meets the widest range of livelihoods needs possible, lowering the potential for future conflict.

Right, so George Clooney is part of an effort to use satellite imagery to cast a light on any atrocities that might take shape as the Sudan referendum goes forward.  In short, this project aims to use hig-res commercial satellite imagery, gathered on a pretty regular basis, to document evidence of genocidal or other criminal behavior.  The idea is, as they put it, to create a form of “antigenocide paparazzi” that will bring unwanted attention to atrocities.  As Clooney argues:

“This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing,’” Clooney says. “But you can’t say you did not know.”

This is genius marketing, even if you dislike the idea (those of us with good ideas really do need to take marketing more seriously).  And a lot of people dislike the idea.  Blogger Laurenist has a critique under the hilarious title “In Space, no one can hear you say “WTF”?” (genius marketing, people).  A lot of this critique is focused on the fact that the imagery will probably not bring about the sorts of accountability necessary to actually get people to stop unwanted behaviors, at least in part because the imagery is fairly low-res.  Indeed, it is – actually lower-res than the article about the story quotes – 50 centimeter imagery is not 50 square centimeters, but 50 centimeters a side (I work with this stuff).  So it is hard to even see people in these images, unless it is at a time of day where you can pick up their shadows.  It is also focused on the fact that “just knowing” about a problem isn’t good enough to spur action – after all, it is now well documented that the international community was well aware of what was going on in Rwanda right before and during the genocide, and did nothing.  Fuzzy imagery certainly won’t change that.

I agree with this assessment.  However, there is a way to make lemonade out of this particular batch of lemons, because these images could be retasked for something much more useful.  One of the likely points of conflict post-referendum is along the corridors through which various groups move their livestock in the course seasonal migrations for food and water (if you want to drop a big word for it, say “transhumance”).  There are two things this sort of imagery can do for us – it can tell us about the biophysical situation in those corridors – are they still able to support this migration, are they ecologically unbroken or fragmented, are there barriers to movement?  Second, it can tell us how many people and animals are using these corridors, which we can use to measure local carrying capacity, and estimate the challenges that might emerge if these corridors are closed or otherwise challenged.  This would allow for effective humanitarian intervention in areas where these pastoral groups (who are typically left behind by aid and development, and hated by the state, because they won’t stay put and like crossing borders).  Hell, if they are going to drop big dollars on the images, we may as well use them for something useful and actionable.

George, you interested?  I can help set this up . . .