The risks of knowing from a distance: remote sensing, social-ecological relationships and ecosystem restoration

Rose Pritchard, Charis Enns, Tim Foster and Laura A. Sauls

Remote sensing data are valuable inputs to decision-making in ecosystem restoration. But as it becomes easier to collect detailed data from afar, is this lengthening other distances too – between restoration advocates and the lands they seek to restore, and between local people and centres of decision-making power?

A savanna restoration project in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Photo: Rose Pritchard

Ecosystem restoration is having a moment in the political sun. The United Nations have designated 2021 to 2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. And restoration emerged as a priority in the recent COP26, with world leaders pledging to ‘Conserve forests and other terrestrial ecosystems and accelerate their restoration’ as part of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

Remote sensing data from satellite or near-earth sensors can contribute to many aspects of ecosystem restoration. These technologies make it possible to collect information on land cover change and other key parameters at scales that would be impossible using ground-based survey methods alone. These data may be used to help prioritise restoration locations, plan restoration activities, and monitor the impacts of restoration efforts.

But data and the information products derived from earth observation are political objects. Data in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. The nature and use of data are shaped by people, each of whom will have different values and interests. Thus, remote sensing data can serve emancipatory, empowering purposes in landscapes undergoing restoration; for example, when local people use these data to advocate for their interests. Or the same kind of data could be used to reinforce asymmetrical power relationships and drive exclusionary, inequitable restoration approaches. This latter concern is particularly intense in contexts where restoration activities have already caused harm to marginalised people, such as by restricting access of poorer households to land or leading to displacement of communities.

In our seedcorn project, funded by the Centre for Digital Trust and Society at the University of Manchester, we aim to lay the groundwork needed to address three critical questions on the use and impacts of remote sensing data in restoration, focusing specifically on satellite remote sensing data. First, how are satellite remote sensing data being used by restoration practitioners? Research papers on applications of remote sensing data are multiplying rapidly, from global-scale analyses down to landscape-level studies. But how are these data actually shaping restoration interventions? And how, if at all, is knowledge derived from remote sensing data being combined with other forms of knowledge (such as local ecological knowledge) in the day-to-day practices of ecosystem restoration?

Second, how does use of remote sensing data alter the relationships between restoration practitioners and the lands they seek to restore? That distant imagery can change the way we think about the world is demonstrated by the example of the Earthrise photo, which made clear the fragility of our place in the galaxy and led to a step-change in western environmentalism. However, some things, such as local environmental values, can never be represented through remote sensing imagery. Additionally, satellite remote sensing data are imperfect, and even the highest resolution data still contain uncertainties that can lead to misinterpretation of landscapes. We seek to understand the consequences of the fact that some restoration practitioners and researchers are relating to their target landscapes increasingly – or in some cases exclusively – from a distance.

And third, what does use of remote sensing data mean for relationships of trust and power, both within and beyond landscapes undergoing restoration? A fear raised for conservation more generally is that digital data sources and ‘conservation by algorithm’ will exclude local people from decision-making processes. There are also concerns around privacy, as more aspects of peoples’ livelihoods are being observed without their knowledge or consent. But so far, few studies have drawn out these social and procedural implications of satellite remote sensing data use, in general but particularly in ecosystem restoration.

The potential of remote sensing data to help address the challenge of environmental degradation is undeniable, as demonstrated by the proliferation of increasingly detailed and sophisticated remote sensing applications and tools for environmental purposes over the last two decades. However, the use of such data is not without risks or challenges. Questioning the consequences of how satellite remote sensing data are used, by whom, and with what impacts is an important step towards ensuring that these data support just and lasting approaches to ecosystem restoration – not approaches associated with exclusion and harm.

If you are interested in this project and would like to be part of these conversations, please contact rose.pritchard@manchester.ac.uk

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