Drones and environmental activism in the developing world.

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Last week I wrote about the way drone technology was being adopted by environmental activists in Australia to facilitate the role of ‘environmental watchdog’, particularly in remote mining areas where monitoring environmental regulatory compliance is infrequent and difficult. Commercial availability and falling prices of drones have given activists an accessible way to scrutinise industrial activity from the air, allowing them to witness and record both environmental impacts and instances of environmental regulatory or procedural violations. Social media complements this by providing a mechanism for sharing and raising awareness of activities that might otherwise go unheeded.

Today I will examine how the use of drones for environmental activism is playing out in developing and emerging countries where poverty, technological infrastructure, and laxer regulatory regimes both help and hinder the effective deployment of drones. In a globalized but unequal world, I would like to explore whether ICTs provide the same opportunities for combatting environmental degradation in poorer, developing nations as they do in the West. Do drones help ensure better environmental practices everywhere, or are they merely helping to transfer dirty environmental practices from rich to poor countries as multinationals increasingly offshore their activities? Are drones serving to bridge or widen the digital divide?

Let’s start with the positives. Beyond activism, drones have already found a useful niche in the humanitarian sphere, in facilitating rapid assessment and appreciating the size and scale of natural disasters as shown in footage of the tsunami which hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi last week. They are also being used to provide aid to remote or otherwise inaccessible areas, as demonstrated through the highly successful American start-up Zipline, which has been instrumental in rapid delivery of medicines, ordered via text message, to remote clinics and hospitals in Rwanda and is now being rolled out in Tanzania to deliver blood and vaccines. On the environmental side, a Ugandan start-up, DroneNerds Africa Ltd., is using drone technology for GIS mapping, agricultural activities and monitoring environmental compliance. Drones are used to assess the environmental impact of open-pit sand mining in the Lake Victoria basin and its affect on water quality. DroneNerds claims that the data collected is used to “augment environmental justice enforcement and compliance through sharing evidence-based findings with activists/civil society (and) regulatory bodies.” Founder and CEO Silver Kayondo is thinking big in terms of the future objectives of the company. He seeks to apply machine learning and AI to the data his drones collect. For this he aims to develop partnerships with large delivery drones and multinational industry players.

With drones expected to become integrated into daily activities across a range of industries from agriculture to medicinal logistics to journalism, drone technologies are making a significant contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG9, which aims to support domestic technology development, research and innovation in developing countries and significantly increase access to information and communications technologies (SDG 9b & 9c).

Meanwhile, over in South America drones are being used to monitor illegal activities ranging from unauthorised logging to illegal fishing to sand mining. The vastness and impenetrability of the Brazilian Amazon – home to the world’s largest remaining rainforest and therefore an important carbon sink for mitigating dangerous levels of climate change – is too great for effective policing by traditional methods against illegal logging. However drone technology has already been adopted by environmental authorities in Brazil to combat deforestation, which is timely, as economic crisis and falling commodity prices (pastoral/agricultural) increase pressure to open up more forest. Drones are also being deployed to combat deforestation by spraying seeds from the sky.

This is all very good news. Both richer and poorer nations can now use ICTs as a means to better monitor and tackle environmental regulatory compliance in their own countries. But is this a ‘win-win’ scenario, or does NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard) simply transfer the environmental costs of global capitalism from rich countries to poor countries?

Sociologists have known for a long time that the environmental burden of industrialisation has fallen disproportionately on the poor within Western countries. In her 1997 paper on the origins of environmental justice, urban planner Eileen McGurty noted that the US debate over how environmental degradation and reform disproportionately impact on people of colour emerged in the 1960’s, as environmentalism became a meaningful part of public discourse. Clashing ideologies between those seeking environmental quality and those seeking social justice emerged as a “concrete conflict over the exclusive membership and staff of major environmental organisations and the regressive impact of certain environmental policies”. In short, environmentalism was born as a privilege of the middle-classes. Whilst innovation, growth and affordability of ICT tools may appear to level the playing field by making technologies such as drones and social medias available to the masses, it does not follow that they will therefore necessarily empower and create participation in, and influence over, environmental decision-making.

Why not? A short answer might be that we are so locked into a globalized, capitalist economy, with exponential population growth matched by spiralling demands for environmental resources and energy that all we can do is redistribute environmental burden, rather than eliminate it. And where stark inequalities in financial and political capital exist in societies between as well as within countries, it seems inevitable that environmental impact will be offshored from wealthier to poorer countries. That is, redistribution is guided by NIMBYism, not equity. A global capitalism bound by trade agreements conducive to the free movement of goods and capital (but not people) is conducive to multinational behaviour.Global resource giants will simply follow the path of least (legislative) resistance to conduct operations with minimal environmental restrictions.

That’s not to say poorer countries can’t say ‘no’ to environmental degradation in their own backyard, but that they are in a far weaker position to resist it. The likes of China and India have developed powerhouse economies by accepting roles as the manufacturing hubs for global consumption patterns, but not without cost to their own environment and air quality. And coming back to Uganda, studies have revealed glaring gaps between existing environmental laws and policies, and capacity to implement them on the ground. Without a robust legislative framework, and a policy environment that frees countries from having to choose between the basic, immediate needs of their populations and the needs of their environmental habitats to sustain the elements of life, one doesn’t expect things to improve soon. However the use of drones to at least monitor and report the size and scale of events is a step in the right direction.

Coming Up: Next week I will look at the role of social media in facilitating the current revolutionary political change in the post-Soviet world of Armenia.

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