The provincial government may use satellites to conduct surveillance
By Diego Flammini
British Columbia’s provincial government may use satellite technology to keep tabs on prime farmland.
On Nov. 13, the Ministry of Agriculture posted a Notice of Intent (NOI) to BC Bid, where the public sector advertises project opportunities and contracts.
The ministry had awarded a $70,000 contract to U.S.-based MDA Systems Ltd. to use its Radarsat 2 satellite to provide continuous satellite surveillance on parts of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) between November 2019 and February 2020.
The ALR comprises about 4.6 million acres of provincially and privately owned farmland. Ag is encouraged on these lands and non-ag uses are restricted.
Some producers only found out about the satellite contract after other farmers saw it on the BC Bid site.
“The only goal of the notice of intent was to allow vendors the chance to object” to the project, Raquel Kolof, who owns Hough Heritage Farm, told Farms.com. “It wasn’t meant to inform the public or ALR landowners.”
Kolof’s 10-acre diversified farm is in the ALR.
The parties involved would keep the satellite project hidden from the public, the document acknowledges.
“Due to the limited nature of the area being imaged, it is possible that the landowners may behave differently if they are aware they are being monitored and this may invalidate the intent of this pilot project in evaluating change-detection technologies and protocols,” the NOI says.
Other farmers first heard about the project when contacted by Farms.com.
“I’d never heard anything about it before,” Robert Vander Linden, who farms about 3,500 acres of cash crops within the ALR, told Farms.com. “My concern is that the government is going to be spying on everybody (and) it’s maybe not the best use of taxpayer money.”
Using satellites to monitor private property, without consent or notification, is unsettling, said Kolof, who is also the president of the Sunshine Coast Farmers’ Institute, a group that “supports small-scale, ethical, and sustainable farming on the Sunshine Coast,” its website says.
“In Canada we have a right of reasonable expectation to privacy on our homes,” she said. “It’s (in Section 8) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
In terms of what the government would use the satellites to monitor, the surveillance would “focus on land fill and infrastructure (buildings, roads, etc.) as well as commercial vehicle parking within the Agricultural Land Reserve,” the NOI states.
Most of the items are related to Bill 52, which the provincial government passed in February, Kolof said.
The legislation includes home size limits on the ALR and penalties for anyone caught discarding debris on farmland.
“Farmers are very concerned that mechanic shops or wood mills are considered commercial and have to be removed,” she said. “That’s the kind of stuff the government would be looking for.”
The ag ministry has minorly backtracked on its surveillance plan.
On Nov. 14, the day after the bid was posted to BC Bid, the NOI was removed.
“I directed Ministry Staff to cancel a recent Notice of Intent for a pilot project for a new system of using satellite imaging that would complement the work the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) already does,” Lana Popham, B.C.’s minister of agriculture, told Farms.com in an emailed statement. “There is more work to be done before we consider such a project, including hearing from people with privacy concerns.”
The ALC is “an independent administrative tribunal dedicated to preserving agricultural land and encouraging farming in British Columbia,” its website says.
Farmers aren’t satisfied with the government’s cancellation of the NOI because it doesn’t necessarily mean the whole project is scrapped.
“We’re not getting a consistent response that the project is really cancelled,” Kolof said. “The minister of agriculture has said it’s cancelled, while others (within the ministry) have said it’s on hold.”
MDA Systems photo