Social Activism in the Amazon

On: May 18, 2010
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About ellen sluis
I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media. After graduating in Communication and Information Sciences from the Utrecht University I worked during one year in Brazil (São Paulo) as a web designer and, after that, at a NGO, developing the website and PR.


Social activism is strong in Santarém, a city of nearly 300.000 habitants in the North of Brazil, the Amazon region. Mainly driven by a group of media activists, they aim at the appropriation of alternative technology throughout the Amazon.

This group is called Casa Puraqué. The Puraqué is a fish that lives in the amazon rivers and gives an electric shock when you touch it. They adopted this name, since they want to wake up people through a shock of knowledge.

Their main goal is social transformation through the appropriation of alternative technology. About eight years ago, when they started their project, they were the first who brought FLOSS to the city. For them, the profound knowledge on technology enables the new users to actually do something with technology.

We want to contaminate the people with the ‘Digital Culture virus’ and with the philosophy of FLOSS, because during the knowledge revolution, the computer has become the central tool that centralizes all means of multi-media production. Also, the computer is an incredibly powerful tool for learning, communication, exchanging ideas, and to store information. People need to understand that, otherwise our society will never evolve the way we want. That is what we most accentuate here, since these days we are subject to predatory processes (mining, deforestation, soy), that will bring more and more misery to our region1.

They are tired of being exploited for the resources the area contains; minerals, wood, soy, and they want that knowledge becomes the main characteristic of the region. Knowledge on technology, but also on the philosophy of FLOSS in a capitalist society and consciousness on electronic waste and the environmental damage it causes. Thus, through contaminating and educating others, knowledge will exponentially increase and spread throughout the region.

What is interesting is how they maintain themselves without any significant income. That is, they all work voluntary and depend on donations of used technology by companies or the state to continue their projects. That means that a lack of resources would hamper their activities. Therefore, they (often voluntarily) offer workshops and courses on FLOSS and the application of their methodology to public schools with computer labs (not all schools have such labs) and the infocentros (computer centers implemented and financed by Navegapará, a project by the state government). Thus, they seek top-down projects that are sustainable (especially the public schools), and hack them to make them adopt their methodology and ideology, thus passing it to their students.

That explains why the infocentros in Santarém work differently than those in, for instance, the capital Belém. For instance, Casa Puraqué, has already trained over three thousand people over the last eight years. Over the last couple of years the team consisted of about fifty people. Lately, the core group of Casa Puraqué found jobs in the field of ICT for all of them, most of them as monitors in the Infocentros. Obviously, these people have a profound knowledge on technology, as they have learned the principles of programming through using FLOSS, done a lot of MetaReciclagem and have gone through an intensive learning process. Different than the monitors in Belém, they teach the visitors of the Infocentros the basic principles of open source technology through a course on the basics of informatics. Today, they are planning on giving an advanced course as well. That means that there is little time left for free usage of ICTs.

Thus, visiting the Infocentros goes beyond using ICTs, but becomes a professional course. During a couple of classes on of the basics and ICT in general for kids and elderly I experienced myself how important it is to have a little knowledge on how to use ICTs, particularly for those that are shy, insecure, and afraid of technology. That is, especially (older) women are shy, and used to not touch or do anything without permission, so they are afraid to do anything wrong. Or they are afraid of technology in general, as they don’t know how to cope with it. That means, that without a course, they would not enter an Infocentro or cybercafé, because first, they don’t know how to use the technology, and second, they don’t know what to do with it. Something that seems so natural for us, for example, Google Talk, they don’t know what to do with it. They ask: ‘But what am I supposed to say?’ or ‘Should I be formal, or rather informal?’, even when they chat with their classmates.

Furthermore, most of the teachers in other local digital inclusion initiatives, like Casa Brasil and Pontão de Cultura Digital Tapajós—projects by the Ministry of Culture that have bases in various cities throughout the country—joined and are trained by Casa Puraqué. Thus, Casa Puraqué both assures these people a job and an income and the spreading of their ideology and methodology. Every time a new course starts, the first class will extensively explain why and how to use FLOSS. Only after the first couple of classes introducing the philosophy of FLOSS, they will actually start to learn how to use it. When these people graduate and actually embrace the philosophy of Digital Culture, they will spread it. Thus, what is sustainable is not the actual project, but their methodology.

Concluding: what struck me most until now is that these people actually undergo a social transformation. Not because they experience access to ICTs, but because learning about and using technology stimulates them to pursue their dreams, or simply to have dreams. As they focus mainly on marginalized groups, most of the children live in very simple circumstances, and are not encouraged to continue studying after high school. Especially girls are expected to marry soon and have a family. Many girls don’t finish high school because they get pregnant. These courses at Casa Puraqué show them that they actually can do something, that they have talents, that knowledge is valuable, and that they can use technology in a professional manner. The best proof of the effect of this consciousness is the difference I perceive in self-esteem between people that have been involved in these projects and people that have not. Whereas the latter remain living in ignorance, ‘accepting’ inequality because they don’t have the means to resist, the former now are (sometimes very young) people who know what they want, who are self-confident, and eager to learn more. They actually realize that they have potential.

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