Davi Kopenawa, shaman and spokesperson of the indigenous Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, visits the U.S. in 2014.
Davi Kopenawa, a shaman of the indigenous Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, walks down a short hallway toward the computer to Skype with me. In his 50s, Kopenawa wears a white, long-sleeve crew neck tucked into khaki slacks. Several strings of small, black beads adorn his neck, and his dark hair is combed neatly across his forehead, pushed behind his ears.
He's visiting the San Francisco offices of Survival International, an indigenous rights group that has worked with the Yanomami since the 1970s — and with Kopenawa himself since the '80s. This is only the fourth time he has been to the U.S.
Fiona Watson, Survival's research director, sits next to him to translate. In addition to his native language, Kopenawa can speak Portuguese nearly fluently.
"In my Portuguese language, it's bom dia — good morning," he says. His voice is calm and direct, and he clears his throat softly before answering.
He discusses a new technology initiative to help Kopenawa and his community document rights abuses committed by outsiders. Spearheaded by the Survival team, the TribesDirect project will set up a solar-powered, satellite Wi-Fi network in Kopenawa's community, with a camera the Yanomami tribe can use to quickly relay important messages. Survival is designing easy-to-use software, and will provide training to members of the community.
The project is the first of its kind — a unique, albeit controversial, way to amplify indigenous voices.The project is the first of its kind — a unique, albeit controversial, way to amplify indigenous voices.
In recent years, outsiders have posed a renewed threat to indigenous peoples in Brazil, including territory colonization, gold mining, logging and disease. The Brazilian government has been accused of blatantly disregarding indigenous rights, failing to address outsider abuses against the dozens of tribes in the Brazilian Amazon.
The idea for TribesDirect is to spread awareness and report these rights abuses in near-real time, and to help the Yanomami follow and comment on tribal issues across the globe.
If successful, Survival hopes other indigenous peoples around the world will be able to adopt this technology model, allowing them to speak for themselves to an international audience, encourage governments to take action and, ultimately, change the way outsiders treat them.
Among the atrocities committed against the Yanomami and their land, Kopenawa cites cattle ranchers, or fazendeiros, who "are prepared to use firearms against the indigenous people. They use pistoleiros [gunmen] and they also cut down thousands of trees. They pollute the springs, and they take out all the natural plants and vegetation," he says.
The Yanomami are also worried about big mining companies. More than 1,000 miners are currently working illegally on Yanomami land, according to Survival, transmitting diseases such as malaria and polluting the area.
Over the past several years, the National Congress of Brazil has considered proposed bills that would open up indigenous territories for mining. The current legal framework for mining dates back to the 1960s.
There's also the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a government agency that has been accused of some of the worst deforestation and land divisions, not to mention rural workers who carve roads throughout the territory.
"The most dangerous things of all are roads. They use huge tractors, which literally scrape the skin of the earth. They pollute all the streams, and they destroy lots and lots of trees.
We call their machines 'giant beasts,' because they open up everything.We call their machines 'giant beasts,' because they open up everything.Once you have the big road, it enables colonization of our land and opening up lots of smaller roads," Kopenawa says.
And although SESAI, Brazil’s indigenous health department, has improved health conditions, tribes still face low-quality services and a lack of universalized medicines and vaccines. Ida Pietricovsky Oliveira, a communication specialist at UNICEF, tells Mashable that the 2013 SESAI Management Report cited several alleged problems, including insufficient data for planning, difficulty buying supplies and inadequate training for intercultural care.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian government body responsible for policies and protection of indigenous peoples, did not respond to a request for comment.
When the Yanomami experience such issues, they can use TribesDirect to communicate with the outside world, Survival's director Stephen Corry tells Mashable. It enables someone like Kopenawa to comment on challenges other tribal people are experiencing, especially if his community moves. The Yanomami people are nomadic, staying in one place for about two years and then moving elsewhere.
They live in round, communal houses called shabonos, which can fit hundreds of people divided into families. Shabonos are spread anywhere between 12 and 125 miles away from each other, so they can occupy a large amount of space and store plenty of food.
We don't live like the city people, where you all live on top of each otherWe don't live like the city people, where you all live on top of each other," Kopenawa says.
It's in one of these shabonos where TribesDirect will likely be set up.
As the largest relatively isolated indigenous tribe in Amazonia, there are between 30,000 and 35,000 Yanomami living in more than 200 villages along the border of Brazil and Venezuela. The population is made up of various groups, some of which are still considered "uncontacted" — their existence is known, but they have never had peaceful contact with outsiders (or, sometimes, even with other Yanomami communities).
Kopenawa is president of Hutukara, an indigenous association founded in 2004 that comprises 12 Yanomami communities. Indigenous associations like Hutukara are common, including the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which is the main organization of indigenous peoples of the Brazilian Amazon.
"We know how to work together. Hutukara plays a very important role for the Yanomami. That is because Hutukara is a weapon for our people to defend the Yanomami's rights," he says.
A Survival spokesperson tells me that Hutukara members will likely be the ones to use TribesDirect, becoming the project's very first tech pioneers. All footage will go to Survival first, whereupon the organization will encourage viewers to take action on its website. For example, viewers will be able to send letters to the Brazilian president about the gold miners in Yanomami territory.
"We are going to try this," Kopenawa says of the TribesDirect project. Survival only just revealed the project to him during his U.S. visit in early May. But he still has speak to his community about it.
"I think this equipment is a real weapon for our defense. It will send messages everywhere — ourmessage ... It's like an experiment. If it works, it will help us communicate with the cities and the whole world," he says.
Many Yanomami, especially the younger people who sometimes travel to local cities, have encountered technology before. Communities talk to each other via a network of radios (radiofonia), health workers use microscopes to test for malaria and Hutukara's offices have computers for letters and newsletters. And TribesDirect is visual; it doesn't require the user to be literate, and it's less expensive than setting up radio equipment.
They're living in the 21st century just as anybody else is, just differentlyThey're living in the 21st century just as anybody else is, just differently," Corry says. "I have absolutely no doubt that ... once the problems are sorted, [it] will be no harder for an average, younger Yanomami than it will be for anybody else [in the world]."
They've already experienced some hiccups, though. Survival doesn't have a technical backup team to help with testing; it took them a while to realize the first iteration of the equipment was broken.
"The Amazon is extremely humid, and there are a lot of insects that tend to get into delicate electronics. The gear has to be able to withstand all that," he says.
Because of these glitches and the NGO's limited funds to replace the equipment, the timeframe for the TribesDirect project is taking at least three times longer than Corry would have liked. He hopes to have everything up and running within six months.
And for anyone worrying that introducing such technology will disrupt the Yanomami culture, Corry argues that since it's completely under the community's control, TribesDirect can only benefit its users.
"They can switch it on, they can switch it off. If they've got nothing to say, then they don't say anything. A people's culture is not shaken by the presence of some kind of external artifact. It's the ... outsiders stealing their resources, stealing their land, stealing their labor, and often just killing them all, and bringing diseases that kill," he says.
When I tell Bruce Albert, a French anthropologist who has worked with the Yanomami since 1975, about the TribesDirect project, he says he doesn't see any immediate drawbacks. He has faith in the younger generation of Yanomami, and tells me in an email that they've attended bilingual schools since the 1990s and, as a result, have developed a strong grasp of modern technology.
"Many of them have emails and Facebook pages," says Albert, who is also the research director at the Research Institute for Development in Paris and associate researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) in São Paulo.
ISA worked with Hutukara to help set up the network of radios in 18 strategic regions of Yanomami land.
"Today more than ever they have to count on international support to counterbalance the very unequal power relations in which their society is embedded," Albert says. He believes the project has potential to help indigenous groups around the world, but it would take time and widespread effort.
But is technology really the best way to spread awareness and protect indigenous rights? Albert says there isn't a single best way to do so, but the more advocates galvanize the greater public, the better. Books, documentaries, academic writings and articles are still important, he posits, but technology is a necessary addition.
"The Internet is changing everything, shortening time and space, and the Survival project is a very clever way to adapt the struggle...to this new context. Quick and direct access to social and traditional media from the field can be...a fundamental weapon for new Yanomami generations to defend their land, culture and way of life," he says.
More than anything, Kopenawa wants the world's support, and for people to understand what is really going on in his home.
"We Yanomami people don't want to die," he says. "We want the government to respect us and to guarantee our lands, because our land is ours."
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