Entries tagged with “Sudan”.


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 . . .

Given the stunning lack of serious coverage of the issue in American papers, readers can be forgiven if they are not up to speed on the situation in Sudan, where we might see the formation of a new country at the beginning of the new year – but probably not.  Southern Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence from Northern Sudan on January 9, 2011 – and most observers say that the southern Sudanese will vote for independence by a wide margin.  This is not good news for the Sudanese government in Khartoum, not least because most of the oil in Sudan is in the south.  So, we have seen various efforts to stall the referendum, which was promised in 2005 as part of a peace deal to end the Sudanese civil war, because of procedural or logistical issues.  This was worrying, as it showed a lack of commitment on the part of Khartoum . . . and the possibility they would not honor this deal.  Remember, the Sudanese government are the lovely people who brought us the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, so they have a history of, shall we say, problematic behavior.

Say what you will about these subtle hints that I think suggest this referendum will not play out, the signals of a coming disaster are starting to become too clear to ignore.  The BBC (among others) notes that the Sudanese government is blocking further UN presence along the buffer between North and South Sudan.  If you read between the lines, the dialogue here is chilling:

Officials at the UN said the decision had been made following an appeal from South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who was concerned the North was preparing for war.

But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s security adviser, Salah Gosh, rejected the plan, saying troops could not be deployed without the consent of the government.

Ibrahim Ghandour, another leading politician in Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), said any tension in the region could be sorted out between the two sides, so a buffer zone between North and South was not necessary.

First, Gosh is correct – the UN doesn’t really have a lot of good mechanisms for ordering countries around.  Unless the security council gets serious and orders a military action a la Kuwait in the early 1990s, UN Peacekeepers do operate at the will of the national government . . . which right now sits in Khartoum.  But for Gosh and for Ghandour to argue against more peacekeepers is worrying . . . peacekeepers are only meant to prevent violence.  Arguing against their presence makes sense only if . . . you are planning violence.  And when you hear the Southern Sudanese leader saying he fears the North is planning war, and he would love more peacekeepers . . . figure it out, people.  Things are about to go very, very badly in Sudan.

There are all sorts of reasons this matters.  First, the human suffering associated with war is never a good thing, and should be prevented whenever possible.  Second, this referendum is meant to be a democratic expression of the will of the people, and if we sit by and let this process fail or devolve into violence, we lose any high ground when discussing governance with other countries.  Further, they would lose confidence in our support for them – basically, we’d be saying that we really want to help, unless, of course, things get ugly.  In which case, we’ll just stand by and watch.  Not a real powerful stance.  Third, if this blows up, the likelihood of regional impacts is very, very high – the conflict in Northern Uganda is intimately linked to the long standing tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan.  A shooting war in Sudan will likely lead to greater violence in Northern Uganda.  Fourth, remember Darfur?  Also in Sudan, folks – and most of that violence started when the North-South civil war was settled, giving the government in Khartoum the time and resources to address what they saw as a threat to their authority in Darfur.  If a new North-South war starts, the impact on Darfur (and the people who fled to neighboring Chad) is difficult to predict.

And let’s not even wade into the large international interest in Sudanese oil.  I don’t even want to think about what might happen to the people in this region if international powers start picking sides.

If there were ever a moment where a forceful statement from the US and Europe could make a difference for a lot of people, this is it.  A real threat to intercede in this referendum before there is a conflict by a power or powers large enough to turn back the Sudanese Army could probably stop this before it starts . . . and earn us a lot of goodwill from the people of the region, even as it infuriates Khartoum.  Then again, who the hell cares what a government headed by an indicted war criminal thinks?  Has there ever been an easier choice for us?