Order of Multitudes

Documenting Environmental Violence: Interview with Samaneh Moafi

Samaneh Moafi is a Senior Researcher at Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London, where she oversees the Centre for Contemporary Nature. Her research focuses on the development of new evidentiary techniques for investigating cases of environmental violence.

Michael Faciejew: Your research at the Center for Contemporary Nature and Forensic Architecture examines the intersection of environmental and military justice. Your doctoral work, on the other hand, examined the domestic space as a site of resistance. How has your trajectory evolved and how did your interests ultimately converge in your current work?

Samaneh Moafi: These different scales of research coexisted when I first came to Forensic Architecture. The first project I worked on with Eyal Weizman was before Forensic Architecture was formalized into a research agency and resulted in the book The Roundabouts Revolutions. In thinking about the Arab Spring, we realized that the most important lesson from that revolution may have been spatial. During the demonstrations, the roundabout—a colonial spatial form—was reclaimed by the people and used as a stage. The occupation of the roundabout was a kind of inversion, and the claims that were first demanded at the roundabout were then put into law.

As we worked on that project, I became interested in the Azadi roundabout in Tehran, specifically how it was occupied by people towards a political end during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The roundabout was occupied by what looked like millions of people, but what interested me more were satellite images that showed how, just beyond the roundabout, there were rows and rows of uniform buses parked in the streets. The buses indicated that people were brought to this space from other places, perhaps on the periphery of the city.

I was interested in where these people are from, specifically in relation to a national housing project launched by the President, which encompassed about 4 million houses in the peripheries of large cities. I became interested in understanding how the interiors of these houses were reclaimed and how gender roles and class identities were played out. These intimate domestic interiors were the scalar opposite of the public roundabout. Attention to different scales of space allowed me to read different practices of power.

After the roundabout project I moved to London to start my PhD. I started working at Forensic Architecture at the same time and the two projects developed in parallel. The first environmental investigation I worked on at Forensic Architecture looked at the genocide in Guatemala, which was initially coordinated by my colleague Paulo Tavares. In that investigation we found that the genocide of Indigenous people was accompanied by environmental violence—a kind of ecocide—through widespread deforestation. The logic of the State was to control Indigenous peoples by destroying the environment upon which their life depended. The state’s project was to move these people into model towns that were meant to organize a different way of relating to the environment. The seed for thinking about the relationship between environmental violence and human forms of conflict was there, and we began to see this relationship in all kinds of situations. 

Michael Faciejew: This brings in the longer histories of empire, colonialism, and slavery, all of which entail the transformation of the environment at the expense of human life.

Samaneh Moafi: Absolutely. In fact, we recently released the findings of an investigation coordinated by my colleague Imani Jacqueline Brown on environmental racism in Louisiana. Our site was a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, once called a “Plantation Country,” which had now become a Petrochemical Corridor—a region referred to by its local residents as Death Alley. Before the abolition of slavery in the US, hundreds of sugar cane plantations lied on both sides of the river in this region. Today, many of those plantations are occupied by the most polluting petrochemical facilities. In other words, the petrochemical industry has adopted the spatial logic of the plantations, now colonizing the air with chemical toxins. The residents of the majority-Black communities that border the facilities breathe the toxic air and suffer some of the highest rates of cancer. The kind of violence that we investigated in Louisiana, is a violence that spans hundreds of years all the way to slavery. It’s not about the present but a longer duration.

Michael Faciejew: Was there a key event—an environmental disaster, a military intervention—that signaled to you that an organization like the Centre for Contemporary Nature had become essential?

Samaneh Moafi: The project which formalized the Center for Contemporary Nature followed the 2015 forest fires in Indonesia.

We investigated the season during which the Palm Oil industry had turned the Indonesian forests and peatlands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, and West Papua into sites of a land clearing process called slash-and-burn. The fumes from that fire encompassed a massive territory extending beyond the borders of Indonesia. All the neighboring countries were enveloped in this toxic cloud. We began a conversation with a legal firm called FIBGAR (Fundación Internacional Baltasar Garzón), which shared our interest in developing new investigative techniques for bringing accountability to intentional forest fires as an international crime. We thought that this case could become an archetype leading to the recognition of ecocide as an international crime. This is where we coined the term “Contemporary Nature.” According to this term, nature is not the backdrop of human history—it’s very much entangled with it. We slowly became interested in one of the victims of forest fires, the orangutan, a threshold figure in the words of our director Eyal Weizman, a figure on the thresholds of the forest, but also on the threshold of the law. Together with another collaborator at M7Red, we followed a legal case in Argentina where Sandra, an elderly orangutan, was given nonhuman rights in a court. The word orang-utan translates as the person of the forest. In illustrations, too, it was usually depicted as a humanlike figure, with an upright pose and a walking stick. At some point in the nineteenth century, the orangutan is “dehumanized” and pushed back into nature. In illustrations, it still holds a branch in its hand, but this branch is connected to a tree: the orangutan is back from the field to the forest, it is part of nature—an animal.  We returned to the branch in our research. The way the orangutan uses it to build its nest. We returned to the nest as a cultural artefact, as archeological remains…

Michael Faciejew: What lessons did you learn from this early investigation, with a nonhuman actor leading the story?

Samaneh Moafi: Though this particular investigation didn’t ultimately establish ecocide as an international crime, it was an important study that taught us a few things. We encountered a problem when trying to bring accountability to the owners of the industrial plantations who maintained power over land, as opposed to the local farmers who worked the field. The fundamental question was: How do we identify accountability? Both corporate entities and the state have a hand in this. How do we make sure that the local farmers aren’t punished?

We picked up some of the lessons from the investigation in the collaboration we did with Greenpeace International, who asked us to look into a series of plantations in West Papua owned by a particular palm oil conglomerate named Korindo. We analyzed these plantations side by side and over time. Beginning with the acquisition of the land, we monitored the fires set in these plantations: the location, directionality, speed, and magnitude with which they were set over several years. We drew comparisons with other plantations in the same region and arrived at the conclusion that the fires were most likely intentional.

We shared our inquiry with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which had provided Korindo with its certification. They had supposedly investigated Korindo but said they couldn’t find evidence pointing to the intentionality of fires set in their plantations. So we asked the BBC to relay our findings. With a reporter on site, the BBC cross-referenced our findings with stories from the ground. Following the pressure of an international media outlet like the BBC, and the hard evidence we had provided, the FSC withdrew its certificate to Korindo in July. This was a huge achievement. Our evidence was also used in a German court case in support of an environmental group called Mighty Earth and against Korindo. The legal strategy that we pursued in this case and the forums through which we mobilized our findings were different from our Ecocide in Indonesia case. But some of the investigative methods followed from the earlier research.

Michael Faciejew: You mentioned the word “evidence” earlier, and this is interesting in relation to the visualization and cartographic techniques that the Center for Contemporary Nature uses in its investigations. Historically, maps and atlases have been central to colonizing and extractive projects. How does your work engage with cartographic technologies and rethink them as tools for resistance?

Samaneh Moafi: Our investigations work because they move between scales. They are multi-scalar. For instance, in a project coordinated by my colleague Shourideh C. Molavi and in collaboration with a group of Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations including the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, Gisha (Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement) and Adalah (The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights), we investigated the Israeli use of herbicides on the eastern border of Gaza. Palestinian farmers on the Gazan side of the border had sent us images of their crops with signs of severe damage by herbicide. The leaf from their crops provided testimonies to border violence and the unannounced Israeli aerial spraying of crop-killing herbicides. At a different scale, the scale of the body, we received video footage taken by the field workers and their smartphones showing the Israeli crop dusters. The videos showed the clouds of herbicide at their source, as they were sprayed by the crop-dusters. But using these videos on their own, it was not possible to estimate where the chemical particles of herbicide were going after they were sprayed.

We modelled the path of the plane as it was spraying herbicide in our 3D architectural modelling software. In collaboration with scientists from the Imperial College, we took the spatial modelling into a Fluid Dynamics Simulation software which allowed us to simulate the movement of the airborne herbicide while taking into account the spatial as well as meteorological conditions (such as wind direction and speed). Our simulation revealed that the wind carried the Israeli herbicide onto the Palestinian side of the border, destroying the farms. We also examined the case at the scale of the globe and with the optics of satellites. By comparing images from before and after the spraying we deployed a remote-sensing technique called NDVI analysis and measured the loss of vegetation. It was precisely by coordinating these three different and differing scales of mapping that we were able to build up evidence. A farmer looks at a leaf on the ground, a field worker films a plane, a scientist models in his simulation software, and the optics of the satellite measure a vegetation index. If these different scalar things all register and signify the same practice of violence, as they did in this case, then that makes for solid evidence.

Michael Faciejew: These investigations show that there are all kinds of skill sets at play in your work. What is the composition of a team for this kind of project, and how do you qualify this expertise?

Samaneh Moafi: The intersections between disciplines are essential to all of our investigations. It’s really important to have people coming from different fields to produce innovative ideas and new investigative techniques.

This disciplinary intersectionality is crucial to the body of research that we are developing at the Centre for Contemporary Nature concerning the mapping of toxic clouds. In recent years, social media has been incredibly instrumental to open-source investigations of human rights issues. It holds a myriad of images documenting toxic clouds as they come out of tear gas canisters. These images can help understand where a canister and the source of the tear gas are, but they leave a lot of open-ended questions. Often there is more than one canister in a street or a roundabout, which is what happened in the mass gassing of streets during the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and in the 2019 protests in Santiago de Chile as well as in Hong Kong. In these situations, open-source techniques on their own could not allow us to estimate the exact contours and concentration of the chemical clouds.

But there was another kind of evidence: medical reports documenting the effects of the tear gas on the body. These reports, published by organizations such as the Human Rights Commission in Chile, describe symptoms and chemical infection in specific individuals or animals. Together with our scientist collaborators at the Imperial College, that we could bridge between open-source information and medical data using our architectural and fluid dynamics simulation techniques and in doing so bring accountability for the police and the military who were responsible. We did this for the case of the use of teargas in Plaza de la Dignidad in Chile. Over the years, we’ve also worked with scientists who do remote sensing, legal practitioners, journalists, and other experts to bring different techniques together within individual investigations.

Michael Faciejew: Visual and aesthetic experience are essential aspects of your practice. Can you elaborate on the role of visualization in your work as well as its relationship to the media?

Samaneh Moafi: We relate to images and visual evidence in a couple of ways. Images can be read as sources, like a text that can be pulled apart. This includes the metadata of an image: when it was taken or the kind of camera that took the image. We can also use an image to do spatial analysis—to architecturally reconstruct the space where an act of violence has taken place, which often can’t be physically accessed, so that it can be examined. When images don’t have metadata, which happens often when they’re released on social media, we can find their time by synchronizing them with other images and videos taken from the same scene. These techniques of image analysis are important in most of our investigations, and especially in our cloud studies, because clouds change quite a lot. But videos are also essential to our presentation of evidence. How we conceive our investigations varies depending on the forum where it will be shown. There are many different forums in addition to that of the court, where evidence can be mobilized through video investigations. Cultural forums can promote shared awareness for the general public, and media outlets can have concrete effects, like what we did with Korindo and the FSC. These forums are especially necessary when it comes to environmental violence: our courts have yet to develop the necessary legal vocabulary for addressing it.

Michael Faciejew: Although your work focuses on conflict and violence, your ultimate goal is conflict resolution. Do you have a fundamentally hopeful approach regarding the possibility of conflict resolution?

Samaneh Moafi: If you work in the field of human rights, you can’t afford to be pessimistic. We are driven by the possibility of a different kind of a world. A world where there is justice. One of the ways to arrive as justice is bringing accountability. Justice itself, can mean very different things for communities who are affected by political, military, and corporate violence. In our recent investigation on environmental racism in Louisiana, the RISE St. James community who originally commissioned us, is demanding a moratorium on further petrochemical developments in the region, and they are also demanding ecological reparations, both of which our evidence supports.