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Pollution & HealthDigitalization and Predictive Policing in Conservation

Digitalization and Predictive Policing in Conservation

Digitalization and Predictive Policing in Conservation

Does technology shift focus toward “green policing” and away from integrated conservation and development?

Digitalization is reshaping environmental governance in profound ways. As environmental degradation and climate change intensify, society increasingly turns to digital technologies to live more sustainably and protect biodiversity and other natural resources, corresponding to land, water, and energy. Digital tools are transforming who’s involved in environmental decision-making, how environmental problems are understood and assessed, and what actions are ultimately taken. To explore the intersection of digitalization and environmental governance and the facility dynamics which can be at play, I interviewed three social scientists on the matter. The work culminated in three audio interviews with these experts and a summary article for every interview. The project may be found here and the primary article is below.

This text provides an summary of the first interview in a three-part interview series that explores how digitalization is reshaping environmental governance. I spoke with James Stinson, a postdoctoral fellow in planetary health and education at each the Dadahleh Institute for Global Health Research and the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto, Ontario. Stinson is a cultural anthropologist who studies digitalization, datafication, and automation inside conservation, with a special concentrate on digital surveillance and smart technologies.

His current research project undertakes a qualitative and ethnographic examination of the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) and the way it’s being implemented in Belize. SMART is a digital platform for data collection, storage, and evaluation inside conservation. It streamlines and simplifies the work of park rangers and allows protected area managers to mix ranger data with satellite and drone imagery, acoustic sensor data, trail camera footage, etc., to provide real-time analyses, management plans, and reports for funders.

Through his fieldwork — which incorporates participant remark and interviews with rangers, protected area managers, conservation organizations, and funders — Stinson investigates how digital platforms and the info they produce change relations of power between conservation actors. He’s excited about how surveillance technologies like SMART standardize approaches to conservation and promote the criminalization and policing of communities, in contrast to more development-oriented approaches.

SMART was developed around 2011 by a variety of international conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, Peace Parks Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. It has quickly emerged as a worldwide standard for park and guarded area management and has been adopted in over seventy countries and over a thousand protected areas worldwide. It became the official monitoring system for terrestrial and marine protected areas in Belize in 2018.

SMART increases transparency and opens “lines of visibility” between conservation actors, Stinson explains. “SMART is usually promoted and considered as a tool to observe and manage biodiversity.” Nevertheless, he adds, “it’s possible for us to take into consideration SMART as a employee management and surveillance tool as well, because SMART ultimately makes the activities of rangers far more visible to their direct supervisors.” Stinson elaborates further, arguing that SMART makes the work of conservation organizations more visible to their funders. Funding organizations need to know whether or not their money is being spent efficiently and effectively. With SMART, conservation managers can now tell funders the variety of patrols which have been deployed, the variety of illegal activities that were observed, the quantity of fuel that was consumed by patrols, the variety of ranger hours that were spent on patrol, etc. Stinson believes that this increased visibility is why funding organizations are such strong advocates of SMART. The inverse can also be true: conservation organizations recognize that using SMART will help them attract more funding.

The Belizean government is one other strong proponent of SMART, Stinson claims. He reports that the federal government is trying to create a real-time database or dashboard for conservation that might ultimately be fed by tools like SMART. Just like conservation organizations, the federal government recognizes that the info produced by digital tools is very prized by potential funders. “We’ve emerged into an economy where data is the first raw material that has value,” Stinson argues. He notes the growing struggles between conservation actors over the info that’s being generated, due to how the control of knowledge shapes funding decisions.

The digital shift inside conservation has been driven by latest actors in Big Tech, along with more traditional actors. Stinson sees corporations like Microsoft, IBM, and Google funneling large amounts of cash into conservation to develop technical solutions to biodiversity loss, climate change, and species extinction. These corporations have a “financial interest in promoting the digitalization of environments and generating data that may be incorporated into latest economies of knowledge surveillance,” he explains. The information these corporations collect may be used to coach their AI-powered industrial products. The involvement of Big Tech — in addition to governmental and non-governmental actors — raises complex questions and concerns about data access, security, and control.

While digital platforms like SMART are producing latest relationships, dependences, and power dynamics between conservation actors, digitalization can also be reshaping what conservation means and the way it’s practiced in Belize. Within the Nineteen Nineties, Belize began constructing an expansive system of protected areas. Consequently, thirty to thirty-five percent of the country is now under protected area status. The Belizean government lacked the capability and resources to administer all these protected areas and due to this fact devolved the management responsibilities to non-governmental organizations and community groups. What formed was a patchwork of organizations — all with their very own skills, capacities, strategies, and priorities — managing the protected areas of Belize. While this makes conservation inside Belize special and unique, some view it as counterproductive. Stinson argues that considered one of the goals of SMART has been to standardize approaches to biodiversity management across organizations, so as to facilitate the more efficient sharing of data.

He feels that the standardization of approaches to conservation and guarded area management inside Belize has drawbacks. “As a cultural anthropologist, I’m trained to acknowledge the worth in cultural diversity and approaches…and SMART, in some ways, will not be in step with that,” he argues. Stinson is excited about exploring how these digital tools can support and advance different knowledge systems and worldviews, not constrain them. He observes that the more uniform, standardized approach to conservation in Belize, embodied by SMART, has unfortunately led to the devaluing of local knowledge systems.

One strategy for involving communities directly in protected area management has been through types of what Stinson calls, “intimate governance.” That is an approach that “operationalize[s] social connections…and features of visibility and power inside a community, so as to promote conservation.” In theory, community members monitor, influence, and exert social pressure on each other so as to discourage anti-social and anti-environmental behavior. The danger of being spotted and reprimanded by a fellow member of the community is supposed to act as a deterrent to illegal activities. With intimate governance, the monitoring by community members may be partial in its coverage, but should be conspicuous and understood by all throughout the community.

Stinson worries that SMART represents a shift away from intimate governance and toward a model of “green policing” or “conservation policing.” With these latter approaches, the main focus is on using big data, artificial intelligence, monitoring, and surveillance technologies to forestall illegal activities inside parks and guarded areas. In contrast to intimate governance, these technologies are designed to be invisible and undetectable by members of a community and complete of their coverage. Stinson argues that the assemblage of digital technologies, corresponding to cameras, drones, and satellites, creates “latest surveillance environments.” And whereas intimate governance uses informal surveillance by community members as a deterrent, digital tools like SMART use surveillance to criminalize people and facilitate real-time intervention.

This trend in “green policing” is a robust analog to fortress conservation — a problematic, centuries-old, approach to conservation. Stinson traces fortress conservation to the late 1800s, when the worldwide movement to create parks and guarded areas first began. It was about “creating parks and guarded areas that had pretty restricted borders and the emphasis was on policing and attempting to eliminate human activity inside those parks and guarded areas,” he explains.

In response to Stinson, within the Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s there was a shift away from fortress conservation. A latest model of conservation — integrated conservation and development — was popularized. The goal was to involve people in conservation and supply economic and social advantages to communities. “Belize was really on the forefront of that movement,” Stinson explains, and promoted ecotourism as a technique to deliver advantages to the communities surrounding parks and guarded areas.

Stinson believes we’re witnessing a shift away from integrated conservation and development back to approaches more akin to fortress conservation. This shift has been partially driven by tools like SMART, which is smart given the platform’s origins. SMART was originally developed and deployed in Africa and Southeast Asia to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Poaching of massive game animals by organized criminal networks is a rampant and significant issue in these places. Stinson argues that SMART’s growing popularity is, partly, attributable to a growing concern concerning the illegal wildlife trade by influential actors inside conservation. He worries that this shift in conservation priorities emphasizes a policing approach and the identification of community members as threats. He laments this shift given how communities were previously seen as “necessary sources of data concerning the park and partners in its conservation.”

Stinson also questions whether SMART is suitable in a Latin American context and if it adequately addresses the region’s most pressing environmental issues. He doesn’t see a number of evidence indicating that the illegal wildlife trade is a serious threat facing Belize. In his experience, much of the criminality isn’t being driven by international criminal networks. It’s mostly committed by individuals who live around parks and guarded areas and who must hunt to feed their families. He argues that criminalizing this sort of activity, using tools like SMART, won’t address the foundation socio-economic issues facing communities and that an integrated conservation and development approach could also be more suitable. Yet real-time, algorithmically-driven decision-making is alluring to many. Stinson points out that we live in a political climate where “efforts to take into consideration and debate the underlying causes of these items have turn out to be much less politically acceptable. There’s far more of a political climate to easily label people as enemies or targets.” This circumvents political discussions about root issues and structural problems.

Stinson concludes the conversation, stating that this research is meant as a preliminary take a look at SMART’s implementation. Given the unique history of conservation in Belize, the country serves as a superb case study for what’s and will not be working with SMART. While facets of SMART deserve critique, Stinson recognizes that the tool does, in some ways, improve the practice of conservation. In truth, he’s working with indigenous Mayan communities in Belize which can be considering tools like SMART in helping them monitor, manage, and assert sovereignty over their territories. He hopes his research will provide useful insights into how communities can use digital tools “to advertise environmentally sustainable and socially just futures for people and the planet.” He’s optimistic, saying, “I believe it’s definitely possible.”

Next Up: “The Farm is Not an Algorithm: The inaccuracies of precision agriculture carry socio-environmental risks and produce inequalities.” (coming soon)

digitalization, environmental governance, fortress conservation, Green policing, illegal wildlife trade


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