RIO DE JANEIRO ( Associated Press) – It was evening on April 14 when Francisco Kuruya heard a boat approaching a river near his village in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. They assumed it was a regular delivery boat bringing gasoline for generators and outboard motors to remote settlements like them. Instead, what Kuruya found was a barge digging his people’s ancient river in search of gold.
Kuruya had never seen a dredge operating in this area of the Xipaia people’s territory, let alone on such a large scale; It looked like a floating factory.
Kuruya, 47, headed for the barge, boarded it and clashed with the gold miners. They responded in harsh voices and he withdrew fearing that they were armed. But so was he – with a phone – first of all to him. Back in his village of Karima, his son Thyleva Zipaiya sent pictures of the mining boat to the tribe’s WhatsApp chat groups.
“Guys, this is urgent!” He told fellow members of his tribe in an audio message that the Associated Press has reviewed. “Here’s a barge on Pigeon Island. It’s huge and it’s destroying the whole island. My dad just went over there and he almost took his phone.”
Several days’ journey away, in the nearest town of Altamira, Kuruya’s daughter, Juma Shipaia, received frantic messages. She recorded her own video with a choked voice and watery eyes, warning that armed conflict was imminent – then uploaded it to social media.
Within a few hours, the matter came in front of the world.
The episode reflects the progress of the Internet in vast, remote rainforest areas that, until recently, had no means of quickly sharing environmental crime scene evidence. A rapidly expanding network of antennae is empowering Indigenous groups to use phones, video cameras and social media to help the public and pressure authorities to respond swiftly to threats from gold miners, landowners and lumberjacks pressure can be applied.
Until now Indigenous communities have relied on radio to broadcast their distress calls. Environmental and indigenous rights groups then took these to the media and the public. But the non-profit has been vilified by Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who advocates for legalizing mining. and leasing of land in protected indigenous areas. They have reprimanded the organizations As incredible actors, out of touch with the true desires of indigenous peoples and on the payrolls of global environmental do-gooders.
Videos and pictures coming directly from indigenous people are hard to dismiss and are forcing the authorities as well as the public to grapple with the ground realities.
“When used properly, the technology is of great help in real-time monitoring and condemnation,” said Nara Bar, head of the group coordinating organizations indigenous to the Brazilian Amazon, in a telephone interview. “External pressure in the Xipia region to get the federal government to act was very important. Technology has been the main tool for that.”
Connectivity is not only whistling on social media. Brazil’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office has set up a website to record reported crimes and obtain visual material uploaded. In the past, people from remote communities had to make long and expensive journeys to the nearest city that houses the federal prosecutor’s office.
The Xipaia region is part of an ancient rainforest region known as Terra do Mayo (Middle Earth) that is dotted with dozens of indigenous and traditional riverine communities. Internet connections were scarce until mid-2020, when a group of non-profits including the Institute for Harmony in Health and the Socio-Environment funded the installation of 17 antennae across the vast area.
Preference was given to communities with health centers or market centers for the production and sale of forest products such as Brazil nuts. The signal can be painfully slow, especially on rainy days, yet it has connected people who were off the grid before, and enough for photos and videos to get out of the woods.
“The strategy was to improve communication and avoid unnecessary city visits,” said Marcelo Salazar, Health in Harmony’s Brazil program coordinator. “The Internet eases issues of health, education and the forest economy.” He said fighting environmental crime was an added advantage.
Four of the five Xipaia communities are now connected. Karima, the village where the barge was first sighted, has had internet access since July 2020. Three days after installation, when a teenager suffered head injuries, a city doctor was able to assess his condition using pictures sent on WhatsApp. It avoided an expensive, complicated medvac during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in the case of the mining dredge, Xipaia used the Internet for the first time to protect its territory. In addition to sounding the alarm, four villages used WhatsApp to quickly organize a party of warriors to confront the miners. According to Juma Zippaia, painted from urukam, a local fruit that produces red ink, and armed with bows, arrows and hunting rifles, they boarded a small boat. By the time they got to the place where the barge was, however, it was gone.
In the Amazonian state of Rondnia, about 1,300 kilometers (800 mi) to the west, the use of the Internet enabled the Uru-U-Vau-Vau people to take online classes in photography and video, to help them learn how to exploit forests by land grabbers. Chronicle the harvesting. The three-day training in 2020 was conducted through Zoom.
That effort produced the documentary “The Territory,” which won awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, and others. During its production, American director Alex Pritz relied on WhatsApp to communicate with his newly trained camera operators.
Tangaãi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau is a teacher-turned-cameraman who traveled to the Danish festival and later spoke to Associated Press via WhatsApp from his remote village. He said that the film is changing the perception of the people towards the natives of Brazil. “In Copenhagen… I received many questions. They knew about the natural wonders of Brazil, but did not know about the indigenous people who fight for their territories.”
Elsewhere in Amazon, the internet hasn’t arrived yet. So when illegal gold miners killed two Yanomami tribe members in June 2020, it took two weeks for news of the crime to arrive due to the region’s remoteness, To avoid repeating this, Yanomami organizations are demanding better connectivity. After the village of Palimiu on the banks of the Uraricoera River suffered a series of attacks. Committed by the miners in May 2021, Yanomami managed to install an antenna there. Since then, the violence has subsided.
Bolsonaro’s repeated promises to legalize mining and other activities on indigenous lands have fueled the invasion of areas, which are often islands of forest between vast farms. Indigenous and environmental groups estimate that there are about 20,000 illegal miners in the Yanomami region, which is roughly the size of Portugal. Bolsonaro’s government claims there are 3,500.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 76% in 2018 compared to 2018, according to official data from Brazil’s space agency, which uses satellites to monitor forest loss.
Most internet connections in Amazon remain slow, even in medium-sized cities. This may change soon. Last November, Brazil’s Minister of Communications Fabio Faria held a meeting with billionaire Elon Musk to discuss a partnership to improve connectivity in rural areas of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.
However, the Ministry of Communications maintains that the talks have not developed and no progress has been made. Musk’s company SpaceX did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Some worry that indigenous groups such as the Zipaia will not be the sole beneficiaries of greater Internet penetration in the Amazon region. Illegal miners often co-opt local indigenous leaders, communicating secretly over messaging apps. Negotiations, sometimes aided by covert networks, may enable miners to hide heavy machinery, or tip them off for impending raids by authorities, allowing them to escape.
In Roraima State, where most of the Yanomami region is located, the Associated Press contacted an Internet provider that provided WiFi for $2,600, plus $690 per month for an illegal gold miner. Secret small craft blow up equipment for installation.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Salazar of Health at Harmony, speaking of the increased connectivity.
But for Zuma Zipaia, the new connection means additional security and visibility for its people. When she posted her tearful video, it was seen and picked up by local and international media. Within two days, an air campaign involving the federal police, the National Guard and environmental agencies swooped in. He along with seven miners unearthed the dredge hidden behind vegetation on the banks of the Irri River.
In a country where environmental crimes typically go unchecked in the Amazon, the quick, successful response underscored the power of indigenous networks.
“After a lot of calls for help, I decided to do the video. Then it worked. The telephone didn’t stop ringing,” Juma Shepaia said over the phone. “It was very fast after the video.”
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