Thursday, November 26, 2009

GeoEye Foundation Case Study on Satellite Human Rights Issues

High-Resolution Satellite Observation of Remote Mining Areas Addresses Human Rights and Environmental Protection Issues

There is considerable international concern at the rapid growth of the Freeport mine at Grasberg, operated by Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ) in West Papua (Irian Jaya) over failures to address human rights and environmental protection issues. For the Amungme tribe, reduction of the beautiful Mount Grasberg, one of the largest Sudirman range peaks, to a vast hole in the ground, has been devastating. Figure 1 shows the visible spectrum at bottom left.

One benefit of satellite imagery is that it provides immediate access to inaccessible regions for ‘external’ international human rights organizations. Some Amungme and Kamoro tribes were forcefully relocated, with thousands of indigenous people removed from traditional farming and food gathering territory. Moving Amungme tribes to the lowlands brought people without natural malarial immunity into contact with mosquitoes, resulting in higher mortality rates. In April 1995, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid and Jayapura Catholic Church documented that the Indonesian military had killed and tortured dozens suspected of protesting against the mine.

The vast Grasberg copper and gold mine, at over 2.6 million hectares, comprises several climate sensitive ecosystems: alpine meadow, wetland and mangrove forest, and is considered by some to be the worst environmental case of any mining project worldwide. Damage caused by the mine to the environment has impaired the abilities of thousands of Amungme and Komoro, who are traditional owners of mine sites and river areas, to access food and clean water or to sustain cultural practices. The mine dumps an estimated 125,000 tons of industrial waste daily into the Ajikwa River, a sediment load many times that of the original background silt levels. Sediment transport has deoxygenated the Ajikwa River, killing fish and plant life. Tribesmen are not supposed to live within close proximity of the highly-polluted water but in practice may return to traditional areas and livelihoods.

Thousands of tons of waste rock are also dumped in nearby alpine valleys where high rainfall and erosion further lead to fine material moving downstream, releasing poisonous heavy metals like mercury and cadmium into the river, and causing high copper levels, which are toxic to aquatic organisms. River rainforest damage has been drastic; deposition has caused the Ajikwa to change its course and flood hectares of tropical forest and sago trees (a staple food for poor native inhabitants). Nearby alpine glaciers, among the closest to the equator (Lat -17.8) and considered to be sensitive markers of climate change, have exhibited large area loss between 2000 and 2002 (Figure 5). The greatest loss is noted on the eastern flanks facing the mine. Sensitivity of this region to climate change over such a short time interval is disturbing and may reflect wind pattern alterations around the mine due to deforestation. Similar air pattern changes have been reported in Kilimanjaro’s low foothills due to deforestation, but observed changes there may be mining dust deposition modification of nearby glacial albedo, or reflected light.

The West Papua study shows that high-resolution satellite remote sensing can reveal where mineral extraction without deforestation and good environmental practices may or may not occur and can help to identify surface mineral resources. Dr. Lavers and his research team will look at water and hyperspectral properties to attempt to verify pollution chemical fingerprints.

See images here. You can also read another case study on "Porta Farm Land Clearances in Zimbabwe."

The author, Dr. Chris Lavers, is grateful to the GeoEye Foundation for providing 1m resolution IKONOS satellite images of the West Papua region through a generous grant of satellite imagery in support of humanitarian concerns.


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