Manchester researchers secure £2 million to establish how satellite and drone data can support socially just conservation

Rose Pritchard and Tim Foster have secured ESRC funding to lead a five year research project aiming to transform knowledge about the benefits and risks of Earth Observation data and technologies in conservation.

Manchester researchers secure £2 million to establish how satellite and drone data can support socially just conservation

Advances in Earth Observation (EO) are transforming how we understand and respond to the global biodiversity crisis but are also creating urgent social justice challenges for people living in conserved lands. 

EO data, derived from technologies such as satellites and drones, are increasingly integral to the design and management of conservation efforts globally. But the social impacts of the ‘technological turn’ in conservation are poorly understood – a troubling oversight given that conservation actions impact millions of lives.

The prevailing discourse around EO in conservation hails its potential to support delivery of environmental benefits. But this techno-optimistic discourse obscures the ways that use of EO also threatens to exacerbate existing and enact new social harms in conserved lands.

EO can be a valuable resource for battling injustice, such as when indigenous communities use EO data to strengthen land claims. But at the same time, drones are being used as part of conservation surveillance in places where suspected poachers are shot on sight. Microsatellite arrays developed by commercial entities are mapping conserved lands to centimetre-scale resolutions, with few safeguards against the harms this non-consensual visibility could bring to marginalised peoples.

Co-lead Dr Tim Foster said:

We’re concerned that Earth Observation data may create a false sense of certainty, with uncertainties and biases downplayed, overlooked, or deliberately obscured in ways that reproduce or entrench unjust conservation practices.

The Justice in Earth Observation for Conservation research project aims to transform knowledge about the justice benefits and risks of increased use of EO data and technologies in conservation. As an action-oriented project, researcher will work directly with people developing, using, and impacted by EO data to understand and reform data-driven conservation practice, thereby enabling just and effective responses to the biodiversity crisis.

Dr Rose Pritchard said:

Achieving just use of EO in conservation requires improved evidence about how and why advances in monitoring, and surveillance capabilities affect social justice outcomes for people. That conservation should be socially just is crucial from both a moral perspective and an instrumental one – conservation interventions are less likely to be successful if they are perceived as inequitable.

The project approach is organised into three phases: revealing, reimagining, and transforming conservation EO datascapes. It will analyse the datascapes associated with four case study sites where EO is increasingly important in conservation governance: the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Guatemala), the Peak District National Park (UK), Albufera Natural Park (Spain) and the Mount Kenya Ecosystem (Kenya).

By framing these landscapes as embedded within larger-scale EO architectures, the project will gain unique insights into how factors inside and outside landscapes coalesce to produce different experiences of EO-data-driven conservation (in)justice.

The research team is formed of Rose Pritchard (The University of Manchester (UoM), UK; PI), Tim Foster (UoM; Co-PI), Charis Enns (UoM), Laura Sauls (George Mason University, USA), José Pablo Prado Córdova (Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala), Klerkson Lugasa (independent consultant, Kenya), Marina Requena Mora (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain), Casey Ryan (University of Edinburgh, UK) and Johan Oldekop (UoM).