Science and Advocacy—a Solid Partnership

Kate Watters, Crude Accountability

From Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Science

1aknowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

The past decade has seen an unsettling increase in the power of authoritarian regimes around the world. This has devastated the already shrinking space for civil society organizations in Eurasia, where Crude Accountability works, but this is not the only part of the world feeling the sting of repression. Since 2016, environmental defenders, human and civil rights activists, and other socially active groups in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and eastern Europe have also suffered from increased pressure, harsh reaction from government, and corporate dogging. 

Part of the legacy of authoritarian rule in Eurasia has been to deny and refute facts and to question the veracity of science. The authoritarian model is to control the media, the airwaves, and now social media, with propaganda, “alternative facts,” and attacks on science, critical thinking, and academia. This has become part of the arsenal of tools for repression of environmental and human rights defenders. 

The truth is that authoritarian governments are threatened by data, science, and facts.

These are the most powerful tools that we, as activists, have in our toolkits. And we have exciting ways to use them.

For the past decade, including during the pandemic, Crude Accountability has been working with scientists, data analysts, and investigative journalists to tell the stories of environmental and human rights abuses in our regions.

Some examples of this methodology include working on both environmental and human rights cases to provide concrete information about issues the governments would prefer to keep hidden.  We were able to refute the denial by the government of Turkmenistan of the existence of oil spills in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea that had been there for years—oil spills that were documented clearly in our 2013 report, Hidden in Plain Sight. The Turkmen government also denied the brutality of the Ovadan Depe high-security prison that holds political prisoners in the desert west of Ashgabat. In 2014, the Prove They Are Alive! campaign (of which Crude Accountability is a founding member), in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a report, Medieval Torture in Modern Turkmenistan, which showed not only the existence of the prison but also the size of the rooms and the isolation of the complex, using satellite imagery to demonstrate what the building looked like as it was being constructed. That data—unequivocal and clear—combined with testimonies from former Ovadan Depe prisoners changed the script on the international level and enabled activists to engage seriously with policymakers, showing them the prison’s barbaric conditions.

In February 2022, in partnership with Omanos Analytics, Crude Accountability published a report, Flames of Toxicity, which documented flaring at oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan. Together with information from residents of communities near the Sangachal Terminal—the site of much of the flaring—we were able to refute claims by BP and the government of Azerbaijan that there was no impact on communities. We showed that even during the pandemic, flaring was continuous at the Sangachal Terminal, contradicting claims by BP and the government of Azerbaijan that they were reducing flaring.

These are some of the examples of our use of satellite imagery to strengthen campaigning and to provide evidence in instances where it might otherwise be impossible to gather data.

This matters because it challenges the official narrative of authoritarians who try to greenwash their environmental crimes or erase or deny their human rights violations. Particularly when satellite imagery can be corroborated by on-the-ground testimony—confirming that what is seen from space is, in fact, what it appears to be–this information can empower communities and environmental and human rights defenders, providing a narrative that might otherwise be unverifiable. 

The model of secrecy used by authoritarians is unsustainable in a world in which technology enables citizens to gather and disseminate information publicly and freely. And their reliance on propaganda is a measure of their desperate attempts to grasp and hold on to power in a world that is rapidly leveling the playing field by democratizing access to information, thus broadening citizens’ ability to contribute to science.