The potential of collective drones’ monitoring for Indigenous communities at risk

Nowadays, we are experiencing a sharp and progressive decrease of oil and gas prices.[i] Nevertheless, irresponsible and only profit-driven extractive activities continue to expand and to impose their toxic footprint on the environment and the society. The extent to which these practices conflict with the sustainability goals stated at the international level is significant. Furthermore, initiatives from state authorities and international organizations often disregard local impacts on marginalized communities, which are frequently the most exposed to extractive exploitation. From the imperative of involving communities in making companies accountable for their bad practices, arose the idea of applying advanced technologies for enabling communities to detect environmental hazards, and safely spread alerts. [ii]

When discussing bottom-up monitoring, the case of Indigenous communities living in rural and remote areas must be made. These communities indeed are particularly threatened[iii] by expanding hydrocarbon and mining industries. In this context, environmental liabilities generated by extraction practices continue to create adverse environmental and public health impacts. As a response to this challenge, a series of ongoing initiatives have been launched by Digital Democracy, an US-based organization working at the intersection of human rights and technology with marginalized communities around the world.

It seems particularly worth of attention the approach that the organization adopted, as based on three steps. First, in the ‘Direct Implementation’ stage, the community training aimed at capacity building is carried out. Subsequently, the ‘Tool Building’ stage intervenes with the aim of co-creating technological solutions in response to community’s needs. All the tools created are made available under open-source format, and are suitable for use by other interested communities. Finally, in the ‘Local-to-Global Engagement’ the local initiative is scaled up by its presentation to the broader world community, through e.g. events, workshops, and tool-kits.

Particularly timely to exemplify community-driven solutions using technology[iv] is one of the Digital Democracy’s project implemented in the Ecuadorean Amazon Rainforest. The project analysed was aimed at combining drones’ monitoring of oil spills with a mobile reporting platform to allow Indigenous communities to safely report oil contamination alerts. Sparks for further research include the need to explore the level of people’s engagement, their acceptance and trust in the process, and the goals fulfilled by the people engaged in the intiative. In addition, the legal risks and criticisms hidden in the monitoring system should be evaluated, and possible ways   to neutralize them inspected.

An analysis of this case suggests that community-based early-warning systems aimed at monitoring environmental liabilities could encourage the state and corporate actors to intervene more promptly and effectively to mitigate socio-environmental impacts of environmental hazards. Pushing this analysis further, one can affirm that technology brings the potential of achieving a transformative change by giving voice to those communities who are often silent victims. As Digital Democracy uses to proclaim, “empowerment from within, rather than involvement from outside actors” is the key. Ultimately, it seems worth to reflect on the potential that such projects have in creating bridges between remote communities and the outside world, enabling them to spread denounces and awareness on environmental liabilities. Yet it must be stressed that change does not come from the technology per se, but from how people use it. Therefore, a human-centred and ethical approach result in being crucial for making such monitoring technologies in the hands of Indigenous communities a positive, responsible and sustainable innovation.

Community Monitoring, from Digital Democracy

Il presente articolo discute una serie di iniziative vertenti intorno all’uso da parte di comunità indigene di strumenti di monitoraggio remoto, al fine di tracciare rischi derivanti da attività estrattive. L’attenzione si focalizza sulle comunità abitanti zone remote, spesso lontane dagli occhi dell’opinione pubblica. Tali popolazioni sono spesso le più esposte al rischio di abusi corporativi. In riposta all’esigenza di fronteggiare tali pericoli, un’organizzazione statunitense, Digital Democracy, ha deciso di affidare droni in mano a comunità interessate al fine di tracciare in maniera sicura cattive pratiche legate all’estrazione di idrocarburi. Un’iniziativa in particolare, realizzata nell’Amazzonia Ecuadoriana, viene discussa nell’articolo. In conclusione, si sviluppa una riflessione sul potenziale, ma anche le sfide, di simili iniziative volte alla co-creazione di soluzioni tecnologiche in risposta a rischi socio-ambientali.

[i] H. Halland et al., “The Extractive Industries Sector”, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank, 2015 (ISBN 978-1-4648-0492-2).

[ii] F. Danielsen et al., “Environmental monitoring: the scale and speed of implementation varies according to the degree of peoples involvement”, Journal of Applied Ecology, 2010.

[iii] E. Skinnider, “Effect, Issues and Challenges for Victims of Crimes that have a Significant Impact on the Environment”, International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Police, Vancouver, March 2013.

[iv] A. Kumar Pratihast et al., “Application of mobile devices for community based forest monitoring”, Sensing a Changing World, 2012.