Villagers against satellites to monitor compliance

Villagers against satellites to monitor compliance


UK: A legal academic from University College London has completed a survey of farmers in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, seeking their opinion on satellite monitoring for the purpose of enforcing environmental laws. Australia has been employing satellites for about ten years to detect illegal vegetation clearance and farmers are the only groups regularly subject to such monitoring.

The report provides a look at attitudes to land clearing and the approach of state governments to enforcing laws that seek to prevent it. It also reveals the massive disconnect between those on the land and the regulators who seek to enforce policies based on the views of urban lobby groups.

What the survey showed is that only 10 per cent of respondents favour laws prohibiting land clearing in Queensland, 18 per cent in NSW and 34 per cent in South Australia. Among those who wished to clear land or had cleared land in the past decade, support was even lower.

It also showed that using satellites to monitor compliance with climate change legislation is approved by less than a third of farmers. With many farmers highly sceptical about man-made climate change, the assumption of a link between land clearing legislation and climate change is a key underlying issue.

That link derives from the fact that “avoided deforestation” was included in the Kyoto treaty in 1997 at the behest of the Australian government. Although the Howard government did not ratify the treaty, it set out to ensure emissions (as calculated under the rules of the treaty) met the Kyoto commitments by pressuring the states to pass laws severely restricting land clearing.

Hostility over land clearing legislation is now extending into a loss of faith in the intentions and competence of the government generally, as well as a renewed focus on property rights and resentment at the notion that farmers are not responsible caretakers of the land. The survey revealed, for example, substantial privacy concerns about covert ‘Big Brother‘ use of satellites, a strong desire by farmers to be informed when they are being monitored, and widespread concerns about whether the technology is being used properly and regulatory bodies can be trusted.

There is also strong opposition to the idea of using satellite images as prima facie evidence, in the same way photos from speed cameras are used. If something is detected in satellite checks, they want any subsequent investigation to be done on the ground by human inspectors.

On the other hand, there is no underlying hostility to the use of satellites per se. The survey showed farmers are generally well aware of the potential usefulness of satellite images, know their properties can be viewed by satellite, and some purchase images to help with farm management. It also showed they were either supportive or at least neutral about the use of satellite monitoring to check environmental laws of which they approved, such as water pollution.

Parts of the report are taken up with recommendations intended to assist regulators to make satellite monitoring more palatable. It suggests, for example, that “regulated communities are more likely to accept or welcome satellite monitoring if there is some corresponding benefit”, and recommends governments offer reductions in ground-based inspections in return for being monitored this way.

It suggests letting those being monitored know it is happening, on the basis that it is likely to alter their behaviour towards “enhanced compliance”, and recommends adoption of best practice procedures for data handling and security to increase reliability and trustworthiness, with these made publicly available.

But with an eye to prosecutions, it also recommends changing legislation to place the burden on defendants of proving incorrect functioning of equipment so as to “create fewer opportunities for spurious challenges by the defence.” It was not always like this. For most of Australia’s history, governments and farmers were on extremely good terms. Indeed, when the country’s prosperity relied on primary production, no politician or bureaucrat would have dared to antagonise farmers as they have done here. Things have clearly changed significantly. In that spirit, farmers, their lawyers and representative organisations might find the report useful at suggesting means of making life more difficult for regulators and politicians in the hope they might give up and leave them alone.