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Pioneering AAAS Project Finds Strong Evidence of Zimbabwe Repression
Porta Farm, Zimbabwe, was a settlement of more than 850 buildings and as many as 10,000 people when the satellite photo (top) was taken in 2002. But the second image (below), taken 6 April 2006, shows the settlement has been levelled.
Satellite images captured under a pioneering AAAS program provide powerful evidence that the government of Zimbabwe has destroyed an entire settlement and relocated thousands of residents as part of a campaign against political opponents.
The images, analyzed by the AAAS staff, show two views of the settlement of Porta Farm, located just west of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. The first, an archived image from June 2002, shows an intact settlement with more than 850 homes and other buildings; an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 people lived in Porta Farm at the time. The second photo, taken by satellite on 6 April this year, shows that the settlement has been leveled.
The pictures were released Wednesday 31 May as central evidence in a report compiled by the international secretariat of Amnesty International in London and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), based in Harare. The report, “Shattered Lives: The Case of Porta Farm,” views the destruction of the settlement and the forced relocation of its residents as emblematic of a broad campaign by the government of President Robert Mugabe to repress political opposition.
The photos of Porta Farm were collected under a new AAAS program that is exploring how satellite imagery and other cutting-edge geospatial technologies can be used to assess potential human rights violations and prevent new ones before they develop.
“We believe this technology will become a critical tool for human rights organizations worldwide,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science. “By using new technology to systematically analyze satellite images and geospatial data, AAAS researchers were able to help Amnesty International and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights document the destruction of Porta Farm. The satellite images show the technology has enormous potential for helping to prove broad human rights violations. And perhaps someday in the future the technology will make it possible to intervene earlier in a human rights crisis, before it’s too late.”
Otto Saki, an attorney with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the images collected under the AAAS geospatial technology pilot program would be important in pending legal action on behalf of those who lost their homes.
“The pictures epitomize the apex of a man-made disaster, and they can be of a phenomenonal impact in redressing such absurdities, now and in the future,” Saki said.
According to the Amnesty International/ZLHR report, Porta Farm was razed in late June 2005 as part of Operation Murambatsvina. The government has described the campaign as an effort to clear illegal slums, but critics called the operation a systematic effort to deny food and housing to the urban poor who have generated significant opposition to Mugabe’s regime. According to the United Nations, more than 700,000 Zimbabweans lost their homes, their work or both in six weeks spanning from May to July 2005.
Geospatial technology is not new—the development of hot air balloons and the first airplanes brought the use of aerial cameras, intelligence agencies have long used spy satellites, and scientists likewise use such tools. But human rights groups have made only limited efforts to use the technology. Access and cost have posed formidable roadblocks. Images from government satellites are not usually available in a timely way to private organizations, and new images from privately owned satellites can cost $2,000 or more, prohibitively expensive for most non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Those obstacles are gradually diminishing. The latest satellites and the increasing power of personal computers and the Internet have made the data available and helpful in a range of new uses, from fighting fires to planning famine relief operations. And in the coming decade, more satellites will be gathering higher-quality resolution images and other data, making the information more accessible and less expensive.
“New satellite technology provides the unprecedented ability to document human rights abuses via a virtual ‘eye in the sky’,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Perpetrators of abuse can no longer avoid culpability by simply denying access to watchdog organizations. With satellite projects like this one we are gaining the ability to detect, publicize and even prevent future human rights abuses from occurring in Zimbabwe and around the world.”
Currently, imaging satellites and other geospatial technology are “vastly underutilized” by the human rights community, said Lars Bromley, senior program associate in the AAAS Office of International Initiatives. “By handling all the technical and analytical aspects, AAAS allows groups like Amnesty and the lawyers to match their issue expertise with the power of the imagery. If we can smooth this relatively complicated process, the NGOs working to protect human rights around the world can see lots of benefits.”
AAAS’s Science and Human Rights program has worked on a number of initiatives to develop and promote the use of scientific methods to advance human rights. It has pioneered the application of forensic sciences, statistical approaches, information management technologies, a range of social science methods and the use of various indicators. It also has helped build an international network of science and human rights organizations.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded a $110,000 grant to AAAS for the geospatial technology project in December 2005, and work on a year-long exploratory effort got underway in January. Among key partners in the effort are Amnesty International USA; the U.N. Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide; the National Resources Defense Council; the Holocaust Memorial Museum; the U.S. Campaign for Burma and EQUITAS, the international center for human rights education. DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based satellite image company, also has been a partner and has provided images at a discounted price from its high-resolution QuickBird imaging satellites.
AAAS staff planned to assess how geospatial technology is being used in human rights work and what useful geospatial tools currently are being used in other fields. The project also included plans to do several case studies that would allow an evaluation of the tools’ possible human rights uses. Zimbabwe is the first case study.
According to Bromley, the work is a marriage of high-tech and low-tech. Guided by phone and email reports from people inside Zimbabwe, AAAS used a Department of Defense coordinate database and Landsat satellite imagery to pinpoint Porta Farm’s location. Bromley obtained an archived satellite photo from DigitalGlobe and then directed the company to acquire a new high-resolution image with its QuickBird satellite. Once the satellite data files were converted to usable pictures, Bromley was able to manually count the number of structures in the 2002 photos.
Several companies have provided crucial software for the project, at a discount. ESRI Inc., the world leader in geographic information system software and technology, has provided sophisticated map-making software. Leica Geosystems and ITT Visual Information Solutions provided the image analysis software for initial processing of the satellite data.
The AAAS geospatial technology project is currently analyzing images from three other Zimbabwean settlements, with reports expected in June. In the months ahead, Bromley said, the project will turn its attention to the embattled Darfur region of the Sudan and to Burma, also known as Myanmar.
QuickBird’s imaging capacity cannot match modern spy satellites, but it provides the highest resolution images available on the commercial market. While its two-foot resolution—each pixel covers an area of two square feet—is not fine enough to see individual humans going about their business, Bromley said, it does allow a sharp-focus view of buildings, building-destruction, environmental sabotage and soil disruptions that might mark mass graves. Imagery from lower-resolution sensors can show signs of drought or other disruptions that can be among the precursors of broad human-rights violations. In addition, technologies such as unmanned drones and mathematical modeling of potential crisis zones may someday prove useful.
In future cases where destruction to buildings, farms or towns is widespread across an area or region, Bromley said, analysts may be able to use algorithms in addition to manual analysis to measure and assess the human rights impact.
If the year-long pilot project is successful, AAAS will consider making it an ongoing effort. As skills become more refined, Bromley said, experts may find that satellite images can be used to see precursors of large-scale human rights disasters—and to guide preventive intervention.
For example, he said, fires visible from government satellites may be able to signal that a campaign of repression is beginning. Bromley said that other scholars are trying to assemble and analyze a range of data from past conflicts—demographic and economic data, drought and other weather data, eyewitness accounts and satellite images—to find common patterns that appear to precede repressive campaigns.
To see the full Amnesty International report on Porta Farm, including on-the-ground video of the settlement’s destruction, click here.
Edward W. Lempinen
30 May 2006