Culture and Connectivity

Stephen DeAngelis

July 11, 2007

Many of those who protest the advance of globalization believe they are speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves (the disconnected, but apparently content, people in remote reaches of the world). In Brazil, the debate over globalization is also taking place — not by proxy, but in the villages of those for whom so many protesters believe they are speaking. Writing for the Washington Post Foreign Service, Monte Reel reports on this ongoing debate [“Awaiting Internet Access, Remote Brazilian Tribes Debate Its Promise, Peril,” Washington Post, 6 July 2007].

“When the sun sinks behind the palm and mango trees, candlelight flickers throughout a tiny village of thatched huts where about 100 Xavante Indians live. The villagers here lack electricity but not technical ambition. Just beyond the semicircle of huts sits a new one-room school building, and a place inside has already been reserved for an eagerly anticipated local milestone: the village’s first computer. In the past several months, an information technology boom has started to spread through the Indian villages that dot Brazil’s countryside, from the Amazon rain forest to the Pantanal wetlands. The federal government this year announced a new program to provide satellite Internet access to 150 remote communities, in hopes that they will be better equipped to protect themselves against illegal logging and other threats to their culture. Industry giants such as Google and Intel also have recently launched projects to provide high-tech assistance in the area. The race to wire remote communities is resulting in a new category of discussion at tribal meetings.”

The debate centers on whether the Internet (and its connection to globalization) can assist in protecting the environment and culture or whether it will inevitably destroy both. For some the debate is not about progress, but priorities — even among some looking forward to modernization.

“First, electricity is on the way, part of another federal program called Light for All. In the largest village inside this reserve, new electrical cables already lie coiled on the ground, and most of the villages scattered nearby expect to have electricity within months. Tsereruo said he has had discussions with state officials to secure a computer and with representatives of Brazil’s Communications Ministry to get a satellite Internet connection shortly thereafter. To some here, the plan sounds like an example of misplaced priorities. The village doesn’t even have running water.”

As one might expect, battle lines are often drawn between generations.

“Alexandre Tsereptse, 74, is one of the skeptics. … Even though there are computers at a nearby mission, Tsereptse said bringing them into the village would only accelerate the erosion of Xavante tradition. … Some of the tribe’s younger members have been trying to convince Tsereptse that computers will have the exact opposite effect — that they can be tools to record and preserve Xavante folklore and traditions, and to disseminate them all over the world.”

Leading proponents of connectivity are tribal members who have already “seen the big city” and understand what advantages can accrue from globalization. Some of them have advanced college degrees.

“‘We’re always looking for ways to improve our quality of life while protecting our culture,’ said Bartolomeu Patira Prenhopa, 37, who was born in the village and educated at a university in Campinas as a biochemist. ‘The main benefit is that it could be a way to record our history.’ Prenhopa said the generation of Xavante that came before him learned Portuguese as a way to work with — and protect themselves from — a Brazilian government that had become an inextricable presence in their lives. The computer is the next step, he said.”

For its part, the Brazilian government indicates it wants connectivity with remote tribes so that they can report illegal activity that could damage the environment. I’m not sure either side is telling the full story. Those who want to preserve the Xavante culture could use computers in nearby villages to accomplish that task and the government could provide cell phones to villagers if reporting of illegal activity was all they desired. Connecting to the Internet opens up many other opportunities that go far beyond the stated “anti-development” objectives being offered. It didn’t take long, for example, for one tribe to learn how to use computers to put them in touch with non-governmental organizations willing to supply funds to help them support tribal projects and programs or further tribal goals.

“It’s a strategy that Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of a 1,200-member Amazonian tribe in Rondonia, has been advocating in recent months while appealing for international help from nongovernmental organizations and corporations. … Surui, along with representatives from the Amazon Conservation Team, visited Google officials in California in May. The company agreed to work with third-party satellite data providers to create high-resolution images of the tribe’s area on Google Earth, the satellite mapping service. Working with the tribe, the company will annotate the images of Surui territory on the Google Earth Web site, giving viewers a more comprehensive view of the land and potential threats. Other companies have also recently launched programs in the Amazon, including Intel, which last year worked with Brazilian government officials to install wireless broadband to Parintins, an Amazon River city reachable only by small airplane or boat.”

Reel reports that it will take years to get the infrastructure in place to provide connectivity to all the tribes that desire it. I suspect that once tribal members have laptops and the Internet available to them things will change more dramatically than they imagine. Their fortunes, for example, could change as they work with pharmaceutical companies to discover new drugs resident in plant compounds found no where else on earth. In this case, preservation could also mean progress and we could all benefit. It would be naive, however, to believe that access to the Internet will be limited to environmental and cultural preservation.