Bringing Internet back down to earth

Naranjito village had clearly changed little since it was founded over 80 years ago. Its straw and mud houses lay scattered amongst dry brushland, dogs and pigs scratched around in the dust next to a small school, charcoal-black pans swung in the wind next to kerosene lamps.

I was here to help put a documentary together on the role of the Internet in land conflicts, but this village didn’t even have electricity let alone instant messenger. What relevance could the Internet have here?

My initial impressions were confirmed when I started talking to Don Agustin, a young man of my age who showed us around. His large sweater depicting a giant cartoon pooh bear eating honey, seemed to contradict his eminent position as village leader. When I asked him about the Internet during a filmed interview in a small glade, he was quite threatened and defensive. He stumbled out words about people who try and confuse them by using technical phrases. I felt awkward and embarrassed as if I had deliberately humiliated him.

But then I turned to Felipe (pictured above), who came from the village and had been trained in use of computers and the difference was remarkable. Initially he looked a bit puzzled too when I said my name, before we both realised that he had heard NIT rather than Nick. NIT is the national tax reference number and has caused a few people to think I am a tax officer in gringo disguise.

However when I asked about his experience of training, his face lit up. "It was amazing," he beamed. "I suddenly had access to all this information from all over the world. I could even read newspapers online." The internet had opened up a window onto a world.

Felipe had been trained as part of an Information and Communications Technology project run by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB). The project was set up in 2000, with the aim of gathering together and disseminating information essential to indigenous communities via their website and email and is focused on 15 centres across the lowlands of Bolivia. 

Interestingly for a project based on virtual communications, the main use of the Internet has been rooted in the down-to-earth reality of trying to secure access to land for indigenous communities. For rural farmers, land is obviously a means to survival and is intricately bound into the daily rituals of life. However over the last decades increasing amounts of land have been systematically stolen.

In the village of Naranjito, some of their land had been taken by cattle-owners. "Most of our communal land is gone now," says Felipe. "Families used also to have private plots of about 20 hectares, but a few people have bought up many of them too."

As we chat, our conversation is suddenly interrupted by screams from kids, who tear off down the path. A small monkey which was being played with (perhaps harrassed or even tortured would be a better word) has wisely decided to make a quick escape into dense undergrowth.

"We are going to need a replacement," Felipe grins. I kindly offer up my compañero Francisco, a Uruguayan camera-man who is already entertaining the kids by intensely filming objects like hammocks and women pumping water from the ground.

Felipe goes onto to tell us that the land is often sold to either other Bolivians or sometimes Brazilians who promise lots of improvements such as building of roads which rarely happen. In other regions, forestry firms or rich landowners have often tricked, bribed or manipulated to steal indigenous lands.

In 1990, the situation had become so bad that indigenous people got together for a national "March for Land and Dignity" that made its way from Trinidad to La Paz.  In the gruelling weeks-long march that took people from 150 metres to 5000 metres, several people tragically lost their lives.

However it put land on the political map, and forced the Government to establish a number of Tierras Communitarias de Origen (Indigenous Community Lands) and set up an agency INRA in 1997 to enable communities to win titles to their land.

The process of gaining land titles is a complex one, involving research teams, reports, rights to appeals and as ever lots of paper. Initially, rich and powerful landowners were able to manipulate the process and had a strong advantage over indigenous communities who lacked information on the complex bureaucracy of land ownership.

"So we set up a team to look at the judicial, geographical and technical aspects of applying for land and organised the information," explains Eliana Rioja, communications officer for CIDOB. "Together with gathering lessons from other communities’ experiences, we started to put that information on the web and trained communities to access the information via their regional centres."

For Naranjito, this information is only an hour away by motorbike in one of the many Internet cafes in Trinidad. For other more remote villages, they can access the information from the regional Indigenous Communities’ office by radio or through direct contact as well as in regularly-held workshops.

"The advantage of the Internet is that you have the information at hand," says Eliana. "Now when a INRA land mission arrives in a community, the community has the information it needs."  The difference the internet made is obvious. Between 1997 and 2000, indigenous communities only gained access to 3% of their lands, in the last five years since new communications technologies were introduced, that has grown to 10%.

The training has also opened up new opportunities which are beginning to be exploited – the ability for communities to find out about health, the possibility of finding and communicating with new markets for their products. "The use of the Internet comes out of need," says Eliana. "When we train we always look at their information needs before seeing how the Internet might help with its advantages of speed and depth."

Perhaps most importantly, it also gives the chance for the indigenous communities to share information and have their voices listened to.

Eliana’s colleague, and representative of the Indigenous Women’s Committee of Beni, Julia Mosua says "We are not just receivers of information, we also produce information.  Too often I hear others speaking on our behalf. Using the Internet we can speak out for ourselves, get our voices heard."

This principle of ensuring that information is two-way and builds on indigenous communities experiences is at the heart of CIDOB. The internet project followed a research project on indigneous knowledge which brought together scientific experts with community leaders to produce a number of publications on traditional medicine and sustainable agriculture .

Of course, the Internet hasn’t resolved land problems in Trinidad. The week I arrive, another march of 600 indigenous people set off from Trinidad demanding changes to the law on land and calling for the process of land entitlement to be speeded up.

Eliana explains that the current law is more generous to cows than people. It assumes a rate of 5 hectares per cow, which is the same that is accorded to a family despite the likelihood of the family to grow and need more land to sustain themselves. It reminds me of the statistic that European cows have a higher income (as a result of subsidies) than half the world’s population. It seems everywhere cows have a pretty good deal.

We say our goodbyes and head back to Trinidad. One of the first things I do on my return of course is check my emails, my link with Europe, family and friends. I take it so much for granted now that it is hard to imagine life without it. Even here in the northern lowlands of Bolivia, the internet is reaching out and empowering individuals with access to information. But it’s a slow process as there are still billions of Don Agustins across the world who are excluded and not surprisingly defensive who are yet to log on.


Leave A Comment