African Nations Partner With NASA To Fight Illegal Mining

In response to rampant illegal mining operations, Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Tanzania last year formed the Africa Regional Data Cube. This is a forum for sharing and analyzing NASA’s satellite imagery to advance national goals while maintaining sustainable development.

Until about 2001, illegal mining in Ghana consisted of local homeowners using hand tools to dig for gold in their backyard to supplement their income. The environmental impact of this activity had almost no negative impact on the local environment. But something changed when a fleet of excavators and other heavy equipment showed up from China. Almost overnight what was a literal backyard operation turned into large-scale, unregulated mining which devastated the local environment. Forests were leveled. Mountains flattened. Streams and rivers were diverted and contaminated.

In 2017 the government of Ghana issued a ban on all mining in certain parts of the country and only recently began issuing very strict permits and mining concessions. Despite these steps, unregulated, destructive strip mining continues in Ghana and across the Gold Coast. The challenge, according to the regional Environmental Protection Agency chief Felix Addo-Okyireh, was enforcement. Ghana is larger the state of Connecticut and Addo-Okyireh’s agency has only five vehicles to patrol and monitor the entire region.

In an effort to preserve their environment and control illegal mining, the nations of Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Tanzania with the help of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data formed the Africa Regional Data Cube. They brought journalists to the region to witness first-hand the devastation unregulated mining is causing.

Using open-source imagery provided by NASA’s LandSat satellites, officials from each of the partner nations set forth to learn how to read the images. Working with NASA staff, officials are learning how to harness, use and store the tremendous amount of data provided by NASA. “By this time next year…all the data will be in the cloud. Three-day-old data will be available to analyze,” says Dr. Brian Killough, Technology Director at NASA Ames Research Center who participated in the training. Killough and his team are also working on an algorithm that will be able to automatically detect geographic changes that suggest illegal mining operations.

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