Brazil Offers Internet Access to Indians

I know that this does not pertain ethnographically to Spain, but I think its essential to a discussion of Internet technology and anthropology.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Brazil's government said it will provide free Internet access to native Indian tribes in the Amazon in an effort to help protect the world's biggest rain forest. ... Francisco Ashaninka, a native Indian from the Ashaninka tribe who works for the western Acre state government, said the arrival of Internet was a success for the Forest People's Network, created in 2003. He said there are currently a few telecenters on the outskirts of cities, but that the new ones will be built deep in the forest and will allow Indians easy access to public officials so that they can alert them of illegal miners, loggers and ranchers." It will be a real chance for the indigenous communities to acquire, share and provide information to public officials," Ashaninka said. He added the Internet would "strengthen indigenous culture by linking them and providing environmental education." [source]

I am genuinely interested to see how this one turns out. My own research has led me to be more than skeptical about the amazing potentialities provided by the Internet when it is introduced to a society. As we know, it is never quite as awe-inspiring and revolutionary as its proponents so hope, or claim, at the outset. The Internet was hailed as a ubiquitous and 'free' source to promote universal democracy and virtual utopia around the world. While much of this new technology can be said to have improved some aspects of communication and social organization in some locations, and according to particular conditions, the Internet revolution did not quite have the impact that we all - pretty naively - expected.

Now, in this case, it is clear that the local 'tribes' are already cognizant of the existence of the Internet and its uses, as there are some 'telecenters' in the area. I suppose what first came to mind was, why, when Internet access is offered freely to them, should these people - or anyone, for that matter - decide to use it to contact the local government regarding illegal activities? As I see it, there are mainly two things at play here. Firstly, there are many other uses for the Internet which these people will be well aware of and experienced with. Trying to predict what individuals or groups will use a new technology for is difficult, mostly because it is a subjective activity based on a mix of needs and desires. Secondly, I would be interested to know more about the local social conditions, the proportions of illegal activity, the culprits, and the local 'opinion' of such activity. Why should it be expected that the indigenous communities should want to - or feel able to - provide names and details to the government (of all people!) regarding the activities of individuals who may very well be, in some way, part of their communities? Are these illegal miners, loggers, and ranchers 'foreigners' or 'locals'? It is very difficult for people to voluntarily inform government agencies to the wrong-doing of their neighbors - and not just in the Amazon.

Nonetheless, I would find it very fulfilling if this initiative were successful in eradicating illegal activity to the detriment of the Amazonian rain forest. The rain forest needs saving. (On a more personal note, think of it: Indigenous communities ... saving the rain forests ... through the Internet! If that doesn't justify anthropological attention to technology studies, what will?)

There are, of course, many other development-related benefits to the Amazonian region as a whole. My skeptical comments are therefore not an attempt to belittle the task at hand. It is important and essential. In short, I am extremely supportive of "linking" the communities and "providing environmental education", as long as this is done for the benefit of local communities as well as the environment, with no underlying motive. Why should it have taken a focus on illegal activities to bring the Internet to the local communities solely in order to help hunt down criminals? When will governments decide to provide new services, technologies and sources of communication purely to help people? Idealistic, I know, and quite out of character - but I am an anthropologist, after all.
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