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Planet Labs

“[O]ne of the most powerful ways satellites can help protect human rights is to enable new forms of social and environmental protections which boost resilience to disruptions — by keeping social and ecological systems healthy. For example, the World Bank estimates that more than 140 million people — mostly living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America — may become climate migrants by 2050. Climate change will trigger crop failure, water scarcity, and sea-level rise, creating climate migrants. Along the way, they’ll be acutely susceptible to exploitation. Yet the same report notes that, with concerted action, this number could be reduced by up to 100 million –more than 80%. The key to doing so will be developing tools that help communities adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Here again satellite data can be helpful. Rural smallholder farmers, who grow nearly 70% of the world’s food, are vulnerable to climate-exacerbated crop failures, through the increased prevalence of droughts, invasive pests, and severe storms. Planet is working with researchers at Stanford, in work supported by the Global Innovation Fund, to develop and scale new approaches to predicting smallholder crop yields using satellite imagery and machine learning. These kinds of predictive analytics may, help inform climate-smart agricultural policies, digital information services, microinsurance, and other services that will help smallholders become more resilient to climate disruptions, and hopefully never become climate migrants at all.

Our satellite data can help vulnerable populations in other ways too. Many poor and vulnerable people have incomplete or informal tenure over their land — they live in a place they have long occupied, but may not formally “own”. Land registries, which formalize these relationships, are often antiquated and susceptible to corruption, abuse, and loss or destruction of records. (The 2010 Haitian earthquake, for example, killed thousands of civil servants and destroyed an untold number of title deeds and land registry records, hindering reconstruction for years afterward.)

Contested or insecure land rights are at the center of many pressing development and human rights issues, including poverty reduction, food security, conflict, urbanization, gender equality, and climate migration. People with inadequate land rights can be forcibly evicted without recourse. They typically are unable to borrow against the value of their property to invest in its upkeep, improve its climate-resilience, or otherwise lift themselves from poverty. And without accurate land-tenure records, governments can’t properly protect occupants, or appropriately assess taxes to pay for critical infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals. According to the World Bank, the problem in rural Africa is particularly acute: only 10% of rural lands are registered with consequences that fall hardest on women farmers.

Continuously-updated satellite imagery provides a unique tool in this context — an independent means for capturing the truth of land occupancy, tenure and change. When integrated with technologies like blockchain and other secure databases, satellite imagery present the tantalizing potential of a low-cost, secure, independent, digitized ledger of land tenure — something akin to a secure, digital, tamper-resistant deed — for people who live there informally. It’s little wonder experimental registries based on these technologies have already popped up in more than a half-dozen countries.

These kinds of tools are a key form of 21st-century social protection — practical means of protecting human rights and providing needed services to the most vulnerable and exploitable.” 

Keywords: Protecting Land rights and Identity, Data analysis and visualization for human rights, Satellite imagery analysis for human rights, Blockchain for human rights, Planet Labs, The World Bank, Haiti, Africa, Stanford University,