Global Affairs professor investigates how satellite and drone data can support socially just conservation

Global Affairs professor investigates how satellite and drone data can support socially just conservation

George Mason University assistant professor of Global Affairs Laura Aileen Sauls and co-investigators led by the University of Manchester have secured £2 million for a five-year research project aiming to transform knowledge about the benefits and risks of Earth observation (EO) data and technologies in conservation. 
Decisions about biodiversity conservation are increasingly being shaped by Earth observation data gained from technologies such as satellites and drones, 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 team’s research project—"Justice in Earth observation for conservation"—will transform understanding of the social risks and benefits of increased use of Earth observation in conservation. Sauls and co-investigators will develop solutions with relevant stakeholders, including affected residents, data analysts, and conservation managers.

The project approach is organized into three phases: revealing, reimagining, and transforming conservation EO datascapes. It will analyze 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).  

As co-lead for the Maya Biosphere Reserve site along with a colleague at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, Sauls has been conducting research in this area with forest community organizations since 2017.

“Emerging environmental technologies have made it possible to generate more and more data, at finer temporal and spatial resolution, which has the potential to solve pressing global problems like biodiversity loss and climate change,” Sauls said. “At the same time, how data translate into action can have clear impacts on the places where conservation happens, especially in sites with unequal power dynamics and histories of exclusion for marginalized groups. This project will provide important insights on the ethical, theoretical, and practical implications of incorporating earth observation data into large-scale efforts to counter global environmental problems.”

For more information, read the open access article "Justice and ethics in conservation remote sensing: Current discourses and research needs" by Sauls and members of the research team.