A controversial plan to use satellites to monitor activities in the Agricultural Land Reserve has been put on hold pending consultation with landowners.
A notice of intent to contract with Richmond-based MDA Systems Ltd., which the BC Ministry of Agriculture posted to BC Bid, the government’s procurement site, on November 13, disappeared November 18.
The notice indicated that MDA was uniquely suited to provide the ministry with “radar satellite-based change detection services,” and therefore the project was not put out to tender. The project would have involved analyzing satellite images of three overlapping areas, each of 4,500 square kilometres, in the Lower Mainland taken through February 2020 to see what changes, if any, occurred. Key activities of interest include fill, construction and commercial vehicle parking.
Critics immediately raised red flags about the project, however. The Sunshine Coast Farmers’ Institute and Alberni Farmers’ Institute joined forces to lodge a formal objection. Several landowners chimed in with their own letters.
Privacy, as well as the secrecy of the project, were key issues.
While the province has embraced technology to develop land use inventories and assess property condition following wildfires and floods, its use to monitor compliance raised privacy issues for landowners.
“The specific areas of interest cannot be identified without potentially compromising the value of the pilot,” the government’s notice stated. “It is possible that the land owners may behave differently if they are aware they are being monitored.”
Some noted the information collected could be made available to a foreign company. (MDA is owned by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies Inc.)
The use of satellite surveillance to monitor landowner behaviour also contradicted assurances landowners received during a seven-week public consultation on farming in the ALR that wrapped up November 15. Complaints, not surveillance, drive enforcement activities, landowners were told.
“The land commission is not out there looking for non-compliance,” said Kim Grout, CEO of the Agricultural Land Commission, at the meeting in Merville on September 19.
The contract with MDA was to be signed November 25. It was worth up to $70,000.