Amazon tribes are reversing the roles of intruders with social media
RIO DE JANEIRO – It was dusk on April 14 when Francisco Kuruaya heard a boat approaching along the river near his village in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. He assumed it was the regular delivery boat bringing gasoline for generators and outboard motors to remote settlements like his own. Instead, what Kuruaya found was a barge dredging his people’s pristine river in search of gold.
Kuruaya had never seen a dredge operating in this area of the Xipaia people’s territory, let alone one so massive; it looked like a floating factory.
Kuruaya, 47, walked to the barge, climbed aboard and confronted the gold diggers. They answered in a harsh voice and he withdrew lest they were armed. But he was also – with a phone – the first he had ever had. Back in his village of Karimaa, his son Thylewa Xipaia forwarded the photos of the mining boat to the tribe’s WhatsApp chat groups.
“Guys, it’s urgent!” he told his fellow tribesmen in an audio message that The Associated Press reviewed. “There’s a barge here on Pigeons Island. It’s huge and it’s destroying the whole island. They almost took his phone.”
Several days into the journey, in the nearest town of Altamira, Kuruaya’s daughter, Juma Xipaia, received the frantic messages. She recorded her own video with a muffled voice and watery eyes warning that armed conflict was imminent – then uploaded it to social media.
Within hours, the word had spread to the world.
The episode illustrates the advance of the internet into vast, remote rainforest areas that until recently had no way to quickly share visual evidence of environmental crimes. A rapidly expanding network of outposts allows indigenous groups to use phones, video cameras and social media to galvanize the public and pressure authorities to respond quickly to threats from gold miners, land grabbers and loggers.
Until now, indigenous communities have relied on radio to transmit their distress calls. Environmental groups and indigenous peoples then relayed them to the media and the public. But the nonprofits have come under fire from far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who advocates the legalization of mining and land leasing in protected indigenous territories. He castigated the organizations as unreliable actors, disconnected from the true desires of indigenous peoples and in the pay of global environmental benefactors.
Videos and photos coming directly from indigenous peoples are more difficult to dismiss, forcing authorities as well as the public to consider the reality on the ground.
“When used properly, technology helps a lot in real-time surveillance and reporting,” said Nara Baré, head of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon group, in a phone interview. “External pressure to get the federal government to act in Xipaia territory has been very strong. Technology has been the main tool for this.
Connectivity does not only allow you to issue an alert on social networks. The Brazilian Federal Prosecutor’s Office has set up a website to register reported crimes and receive uploaded visual material. Previously, residents of remote communities had to make the long and expensive trip to the nearest town with a federal prosecutor’s office.
The territory of Xipaia is part of an area of pristine rainforest known as Terra do Meio (Middle-earth) which is dotted with dozens of indigenous and traditional river communities. Internet connection was scarce there until mid-2020, when a group of associations, including Health in Harmony and the Socio-Environmental Institute, financed the installation of 17 antennas throughout the vast region.
Priority 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, but it connected people who were previously off the grid and is enough to get photos and videos out of the woods.
“The strategy was to improve communication and avoid unnecessary trips to town,” said Marcelo Salazar, coordinator of the Health in Harmony program in Brazil. “The Internet facilitates problems of health, education and forest economics.” The fight against environmental crime has been an added benefit, he added.
Four out of five Xipaia communities are now connected. Karimaa, the village where the barge was first spotted, has had internet since July 2020. Just three days after installation, when a teenager suffered a head injury, a town doctor was able to assess his condition through photos sent on WhatsApp. This avoided a costly and complicated medical evacuation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the mining dredge case marked the first time the Xipaia used the internet to protect their territory. In addition to sounding the alarm, four villages used WhatsApp to quickly organize a group of warriors to confront the miners. Painted with urucum, a local fruit that produces red ink, and armed with bows, arrows and shotguns, they piled into a small boat, according to Juma Xipaia. By the time they reached where the barge was, however, it was gone.
Some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) to the west, in the Amazon state of Rondonia, internet access has enabled the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to take photography and video courses online to to be able to chronicle deforestation by land grabbers. The three-day training in 2020 was conducted via 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. Throughout his production, American director Alex Pritz relied on WhatsApp to communicate with his newly trained cameramen.
Tangaãi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau is a teacher-turned-cameraman who visited the Danish festival and then spoke with the AP via WhatsApp from his remote village. He said the film changed people’s perception of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. “In Copenhagen…I received many questions. They knew about the natural wonders of Brazil, but they didn’t know about the indigenous peoples who are fighting for their territories.”
Elsewhere in the Amazon, the Internet has not yet arrived. So when illegal miners killed two members of the Yanomami tribe in June 2020, news of the crime took two weeks to arrive due to the remoteness of the area. To prevent this from happening again, Yanomami organizations are looking for better connectivity. After the village of Palimiu along the Uraricoera river suffered a series of attacks committed by minors in May 2021, the Yanomami managed to install an antenna there. Since then, the violence has decreased.
Bolsonaro’s repeated promises to legalize mining and other activities on indigenous lands have fueled invasions of territories, which are often islands of forest amid vast ranches. Indigenous and environmental groups estimate that there are around 20,000 illegal miners in Yanomami territory, roughly the size of Portugal. Bolsonaro’s government claims there are 3,500.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon jumped 76% in 2021 from 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office, according to official data from Brazil’s space agency, which uses satellites to monitor forest loss. .
Most Internet connections in the Amazon remain slow, even in medium-sized cities. That could soon change. Last November, Brazilian Communications Minister Fábio Faria met with billionaire Elon Musk to discuss a partnership to improve connectivity in rural areas of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.
The Communications Ministry, however, says the talks have not progressed and no progress has been made. Musk’s SpaceX company did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Some fear that indigenous groups like the Xipaia will be the only beneficiaries of greater internet penetration in the Amazon region. Illegal miners often co-opt local indigenous leaders, surreptitiously communicating on messaging apps. The conversations, sometimes aided by clandestine networks, can allow miners to hide heavy machinery, or warn them of impending raids by authorities, allowing them to flee.
In Roraima state, where most Yanomami territory is located, the AP contacted an internet service provider that offers wifi to an illegal gold mine for $2,600, plus $690 a month. Small clandestine craft fly equipment for installation.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Health in Harmony’s Salazar said of increased connectivity.
But for Juma Xipaia, the new connection means increased protection and visibility for his people. After posting her tearful video, she racked up views and was picked up by local and international media. Within two days, an airborne operation involving Federal Police, National Guard and environmental agencies took place. They located the dredge hidden behind vegetation on the banks of the Iriri River with seven miners on board.
In a country where environmental crime in the Amazon generally goes unchecked, the rapid and successful response underscored the power of indigenous networks.
“After making many cries for help, I decided to make the video. Then it worked. The phone kept ringing,” Juma Xipaia said over the phone. “It was very quick after the video.”
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