Mapping human rights from Colombia to Congo

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Screenshoot of the Voz geospatial social justice project. by New Internationalist

Last month, violent clashes broke out between police and protesters in South Africa’s northern-most province of Limpopo. Locals blocked a road leading to the foreign-owned Bokoni platinum mine over grievances related to unpaid money the community claims they were promised 8 years ago when the company first arrived. The confrontation turned deadly as one protester was killed and another was seriously injured by state forces.

Information about this tragic event was uploaded to a newly launched geographic mapping site by an anonymous user. Perhaps this person feared reprisals for sharing the information or perhaps they had other motivations for concealing their identity.

Whatever the reason, the fledgling site Voz, which means voice in Spanish, provides human rights and environmental defenders a secure way to share information in real time. This means NGOs and media outside the immediate area can pick up on stories as they happen, but the site also allows activists and campaigners across the globe to connect with each other and share information about common issues.

The birth of Voz

Voz founder Doug Specht has spent the past 3 years developing the site, which he began by mapping Canadian-owned mining companies in Central America. Specht was travelling around different communities at the time and recounts how many of them were facing similar issues, yet not a lot of information-sharing was taking place.

‘I started to think about ways to connect these communities together a little better,’ he explains. He wanted to create a tool to collate their knowledge. ‘As a geographer and a map geek, of course a map seemed like the best possible way to do it,’ he adds brightly.

‘The problem comes when you are mining so far away from other infrastructure, in communities that are already disempowered through poverty,’ Specht continues. ‘Corporate social responsibility, if it ever meant anything, becomes not worth the paper it’s written on. So communication between those communities, and to the wider world, helps hold those companies to account.’

I started to think about ways to connect these communities ... As a geographer and a map geek, of course a map seemed like the best possible way to do it

Being able to tie information to a particular time and place means it could also potentially be used in a court of law. It is notoriously difficult to launch successful legal cases against companies and governments that commit human rights or environmental abuses, so this kind of geospatial mapping could offer one more tool to help achieve justice.

Specht is quick to point out the idea for Voz came not from a lofty sense of wanting to save the world but rather from a desire to bring together people already doing important human rights and environmental work.

Fighting foreign mining in El Salvador

El Salvadoran organization MUFRAS-32 (Movimiento Unificado Francisco Sánchez-1932) was quick to see the potential for Voz. They use the site to share information about their campaigns with an international audience.

MUFRAS-32 campaigns against the exploitation of natural resources in the north-central department of Cabañas. They are committed to sustainable development and environmental social justice. Zenayda Serrano, a member of the organization, explains they support ‘collective effort for the defence of land, water and food sovereignty and security, which have been threatened by mining companies who want to exploit the El Dorado mine in Cabañas.’

El Dorado is managed by transnational mining corporation Pacific Rim, now owned by Canadian-Australian firm Oceana Gold. Pacific Rim has been accused of subverting democratic processes after suing the El Salvadoran government for $301 million for not granting the company a goldmining permit. The dispute has been ongoing since 2009.

For more than a decade MUFRAS-32 has assisted communities to find alternatives to the extractive industry. They see civil society as having a central role in deciding the fate of their territories and the forms of development that are acceptable and sustainable.

Serrano gives a recent example of the threats they receive in their work:

‘At midnight on 16 April 2015, about 7 people dressed in black, hooded and armed, stormed the farm where we are developing economic alternatives to extractivism, stealing part of the production and safety equipment. To this date we don’t know the reason for the attack, but our organization submitted relevant complaints to the authorities responsible for the investigation. We still don’t have answers, which has generated fear among the farm workers.’

Serrano says that through Voz they hope to achieve ‘an alliance that allows us to reach the international level in our fight, in the search for solidarity, with the main objective of uniting other strategic actors in our efforts’.

Environmental protection in Colombia

‘In early 2015, the city council of Cajamarca refused to consider a community participation mechanism, called a referendum, against mega-mining project La Colosa,’ explains Jorge Rubiano of Colombian NGO Semillas de Agua. He describes the referendum as ‘a constitutional legal instrument that allows the citizenry to decide on the implementation of projects that threaten to substantially transform the territory, its environment, culture or productivity.’

La Colosa, owned by South African corporation AngloGold Ashanti, is in advanced stages of exploration. Locals and human rights NGOs are concerned about the mine’s future need for enormous amounts of water and energy. One community leader has already been killed for his opposition to the proposed mine. Over the past 3 years, Semillas de Agua has worked with a Swiss NGO to put in place safety protocols for individuals and organizations that resist local mining projects.

Rubiano sees Voz as ‘a mechanism for reporting events that affect the environment and human rights, and that allows world-renowned organizations to keep track of human rights violations’

Rubiano sees Voz as ‘a mechanism for reporting events that affect the environment and human rights, and that allows world-renowned organizations to keep track of human rights violations.’ He says it also permits ‘the general public to know what is happening in Cajamarca, with stigmatization and threats against a peaceful resistance movement.’

Anonymity and security

In many parts of the world, people who speak out about human rights abuses are subjected to reprisals and repression. As such, the safety of Voz users is an issue that has been given a great deal of thought.

Voz uses ‘military grade encryption’ to protect users’ identities. The site’s servers are located in Iceland, which has some of the best data protection laws in the world.

‘There are no platforms where you can post information in this way,’ Specht says of Voz’s strict security protocols. ‘That is really the major selling point.’

When asked what his hopes are for the site, Specht replies, ‘I don’t think we want it to achieve anything, in terms of an end goal. I think that is problematic with development projects normally. They start at one point and they want to achieve “X”.’

There is no such thing as a completely neutral, non-political piece of technology

‘What we want it to achieve,’ he continues, ‘is [for Voz] to be a robust platform that we don’t have to be involved in any more. It can then be used to facilitate conversations between people who do have ideas about what they want to achieve. They can then decide what is achievable and share local-to-local knowledge.’

‘There is no such thing as a completely neutral, non-political piece of technology; it will always have our politics running through it,’ Specht concludes. ‘But the more we can remove ourselves from the project, I think the stronger it gets.’

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist and researcher who regularly writes about mining conflict and human rights issues in Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution is Eternal. This is a slightly modified version of a post which appeared on the Contributoria website in June 2015. Republished here with permission.

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