Amazon tribes turn the tables on intruders with social media

Xipaia territory is part of a pristine rainforest area known as Terra do Meio (Middle Earth) that is dotted with dozens of Indigenous and traditional river communities. Internet connection there was rare until mid-2020, when a group of non-profits, including Health in Harmony and the Socio-Environmental Institute, financed installation of 17 antennae throughout the vast region.

Priority was given to communities with either health centers or market hubs for the production and sale of forest products, such as Brazil nuts. Signal can be painfully slow, especially on rainy days, yet it has connected people who were previously off the grid, and is enough for photos and videos to trickle out of the forest.

“The strategy was to improve communication and avoid unnecessary trips to the city,” said Marcelo Salazar, Health in Harmony’s Brazil program coordinator. “The internet makes it easier for health, education, and forest economy issues.” Fighting environmental crime was 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 injured his head, a city doctor was able to assess his condition using photos sent over WhatsApp. That avoided a costly, complicated medevac during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the case of the mining dredge 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 party of warriors to confront the miners. Painted with annatto, a local fruit that produces a red ink, and armed with bows, arrows and hunting rifles, they crammed into a small boat, according to Juma Xipaia. By the time they reached the location where the barge had been, however, it was gone.

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