Digital Radio in the Amazon: situated technologies for a damaged planet

[presentation made at the “Beyond the Internet: digital radio in the Amazon” panel during the RightsCon 2020 conference, July 27-31]

First of all, I would like to thank everyone who is attending this panel.

I am also grateful to Article 19 for the invitation to be here and for the opportunity to be together and learn from Loreto Bravo, Paulo José Lara and with those gathered here who will also be able to speak up and share their contributions.

In my presentation, I will talk about High Frequency radio as an infrastructure for community networks operated by indigenous and traditional communities in the Amazon. Networks beyond the Internet that transmit voice and digital data in contexts of community struggles for territorial and ethnic rights recognition, in the era of climate collapse that affects and threatens the entire planet.

But before that, as I speak from Brazil, from the city of São Paulo, amid the chaos of the COVID-19 global pandemic, I cannot fail to mention a few words on this topic, in a tone of appeal. I really appreciate your understanding.

We are approaching 100 thousand deaths by COVID in Brazil, with more than 2.5 million people contaminated. Our President has just been denounced for genocide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This is exactly what is happening in Brazil today: Genocide as a State policy. In addition to not taking the necessary measures to combat the pandemic, the president boycotted social distancing measures; spread use of chloroquine as a miracle solution; encouraged his fanatical followers to invade hospitals to “confirm” that they were empty; and insisted on the pandemic’s negationist narrative that takes it as a “globalist” conspiracy to implement communism.
The pandemic affects more intensely the black and indigenous population, precarious workers, the poorest population in general. Economic measures to maintain jobs and to allow people to stay at home, were innocuous. And now, the desperation of survival forces many to return to the streets without the rates of contagion and deaths having decreased.

However, our country, like others in South America, has been experiencing strange times since before the pandemic. In 2016, a coup d’état deposed a democratically elected woman who was not convicted of any crime. The 2016 coup was decisively influenced by a criminal investigation that violated laws and national sovereignty by acting in collusion with U.S. police and intelligence. In 2018 the democratic electoral process was subverted by the arrest of the favorite candidate through a proven unfair trial, and by the malicious use of big tech platforms that hacked and degenerated the public debate. The spread of fake news by mass messaging and the use of robots on social networks and messaging services has not suffered any constraints or control by companies as well as conspiracy and misinformation videos were propagated and promoted by Youtube, regardless of their harmful effects, since they generated – even from those who did not agree or were offended by the contents – public “engagement”.

Finally, the current government, which proves to be more authoritarian every day, which is averse to public transparency and to popular participation, combines disrespect for human rights with environmental destruction proudly promoting deforestation, land grabbing, mining and extractive exploitation of natural resources without any environmental concern.

Our situation is dramatic and our failure as a nation will certainly have severe consequences for the entire planet. Therefore I call for you to support the Bolsonaro’s denunciation for the crime of genocide as well as campaigns to pressure the Brazilian government to abandon his murderous project. It is also the time to boycott international companies that benefit from our economic dismantling and from our social chaos, especially with regard to businesses that rely on the acquisition of land, the destruction of the environment and that threatens traditional communities.

I thank you for listening to my appeal, now I move on to my presentation.
In order to talk about Digital Radio in the Amazon, we need to understand the presence and significance of radio in this region.

I speak from the Brazilian experience, but some points are shared by other countries that also have portions of this biome. Until the advent of satellite communication, radio was the only means capable of covering and operating from forested areas. It has been present in the life of communities for decades, both in the form of small Medium and Shortwave receivers, and in the form of HF transceivers for bidirectional communication.

Chico Mendes, an important leader assassinated in the late 1980s, carried out part of his political education by listening in Short Waves to BBC International, Voice of America and Radio Moscow, which, in the 1960s, had broadcasts in Portuguese. From the bottom of the forest where the rubber tappers worked and lived, the young leader in training could get to know what was happening to the world and discuss the different versions offered by each broadcaster. The presence of radio is so strong that there are many ethnographic reports in which radio is incorporated or mobilized as a figure of translation for mythical narratives and for the shamanic trance (Ferreira, 2019). Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, one of our most distinguished Ethnologists, recorded an interesting and already famous statement by his Araweté interlocutors: “the shaman is like a radio”. Since the shaman receives songs from elsewhere and relays locally, songs that do not belong to them, he acts as media. I emphasize that the analogy captures the precise meaning of the radio’s operation. It denotes, therefore, that this functioning was familiar to these people who, at the time, were of recent contact with white man’s world.

The current scenario of broadcasting in Brazil is that of the dismantling of Amplitude Modulation services, including Short Waves and Tropical Waves. Which is completed with the non-decision regarding the technological standard for the digitization of transmissions and, therefore, the non-implementation of digital radio. A process that has been going on for at least 15 years. We have a state-owned station based in Brasilia especially dedicated to Amazonia. It operates on shortwave since the late 1970s from a powerful transmission park with antennas adapted for different types of transmission and pointed to different parts of the world. It is called Rádio Nacional da Amazonia. Despite suffering from a lack of funds and sometimes spending months out of the air, it is still the main reference in Short Waves in the Brazilian Amazon, the main station tuned by communities in the forest. It performs a key function of circulating relevant information, news and public campaigns.

There are also some regional radio stations linked to the Catholic Church, which in recent years have converted their broadcasts to FM, restricting their reach to the urban areas in which they are located, leaving vast areas with no signal. And It is also possible to tune in radios from other countries – in my field research experience Peruvian stations stand out for the number of stations and also for the quality of the programming.

Digital radio, if implemented, could represent a renewal of the Shortwave service, both by increasing the quality of transmission and by the possibility of multi programming and data transmission. What could enable new public health and education remote programs, something that the pandemic is showing that it is vital. However, this is a practically non-existent theme in the Brazilian public debate which, as far as communication and technology is concerned, is totally focused on Internet, mobile technologies (at this moment only 5G is spoken) and representation – or, the way in which different groups can be present and impact digital platforms and social networks. Moreover, there are no entrepreneurs interested in opening this market, nor is there legal certainty due to non-decision of the technological standards. Current broadcasters, gathered in a restricted oligopoly, have no interest in a new technology that may represent the entry of new players in the market. On the other hand, committed to the oligopoly of broadcasters and without significant social pressure, the public sector, which could implement the new digital service, leads endless debates on the subject and performs never conclusive tests, while stalls a definition.

The success of radio in the Amazon region is due to its flexibility. The necessary equipment for reception of broadcast is pretty simple, consumes little power and does not rely on electricity distribution networks. As it has been a consolidated technology for decades, the equipment is cheap. There are models with dynamos that even do not need batteries. And Its operation does not require complex knowledge or sophisticated skills. Radiofonia, as voice over HF is locally known, requires slightly more complex equipment and consumes more energy. However, it has an advantage over any other network technology available: it does not depend on third party infrastructure. To transmit and receive signals, it depends only on a set of transceiver, cables, antenna and power source. It does not depend on satellite, nor base station, nor repeater station, nor on terrestrial or underwater fiber optic network. It is a modular system in which the minimum unit – a station – already allows the start of operation. This characteristic provides autonomy, sustainability and resilience – fundamental aspects for community-based projects, especially in the context of the climatic and civilizational collapse that we are facing.

In addition, radiofonia takes advantage of some important aspects of the local reality: the spoken word as the material basis of communication corresponds to the orality of local cultures; as it is a region located in the tropics, it is possible to take advantage of the propagation potential of Tropical Waves; as theses services are already rooted in community customs, it is possible to activate social technologies that complement radio transmission – such as messages that are circulated and re-transmitted between neighbors, adding a layer of branching and redundancy to the network. As for the initiative to which I am collaborate, we can also highlight the memory of the operation of former HF radio networks that operated in the 1990s and 2000s, installed to implement the reserve and to manage the cooperative production of the Reserve community. Due to the diffusion of Shortwaves radio in the region, there is always he possibility of articulation and exchange with other stations and with other networks: despite the term offgrid, a radio network not only connects inside its network, but also with stations outside the original network or the local network. Activating a neighborhood of networks.

Finally, the Amazon is a territory of cultural, ethnic and linguistic, and HF radio landscape favors the perception of this diversity by the wide range of languages, accents and dialects that can be heard accompanied by specific ways to communicate.

The Fonias Juruá Network is an initiative with which I collaborate since its creation in 2013. Its original project aimed to answer a communication infrastructure demand presented during the preparation of a Community Management Plan for the Alto Juruá Extractive Reserve, a few years before. It is a community-based project developed in partnership with a University that over the years tactically assumed different formats for fundraising, such as cultural, research and technological development projects.

The Reserve in which the network is installed has about 506 thousand hectares and is surrounded by Indigenous Lands and environmental reserves, both in Brazil and in Peru, forming a continuous area of living forest. It is the first reserve of this kind created in Brazil, in 1990. Here, the term extractivism has a very different meaning from the way it is used in English and Spanish. It does not point to the exploitation of primary resources on an industrial scale, but to situated modes to economically explore the forest without destroying it. Economic activities that are related to traditional ways of life practiced by populations that live in the forest. It is, therefore, an innovative model of environmental preservation that includes human occupation and activity. A great achievement that managed to unite the need for environmental protection with the recognition of the territorial right of the communities that inhabited these areas. After 30 years of the creation of the reserve, the current situation is very different. Rubber, the main product extracted in Alto Juruá, is no longer economically viable. And Federal Reserves no longer have the support of the State to develop alternative and sustainable forms of production. We live in the time of retraction of citizenship which has been replaced by an ultra-liberal economic agenda in which the land is a gross asset that should be exploited and indigenous and traditional peoples are considered barriers to such exploitation. What makes the very experience of the existence of traditional communities to become a political act, an act of resistance.

When we started the project, the situation was not yet so harsh, but there was already little support for local community development. For this reason, many families were leaving the forest to live in the municipality’s urban area. The demand for communication was then justified as a way to promote the permanence of communities in the forest, because it would reduce the feeling of isolation. It would also be useful and decisive for communicating emergencies, for denouncing invaders and aggressions to the environment, and for fostering collective organization and community management of the territory.

By that time, there were already some Internet satellite access points inside the Reserve, provided by federal programs and usually installed in schools or health centers. However, there was no incentive for communities to appropriate these terminals for community use or for free use. The terminals ended up being used for school management and their employees. In addition, the Internet and computers demand an entirely new language that is highly dependent on the domain of writing, which has not been locally universalized . On the other hand, radio broadcasting referred to a successful experience from the past, there was a memory of use and a greater proximity to oral culture. In a way that we can say that radio was already a local language.

Projects that deal with digital inclusion or that are guided by slogans like “connect the unconnected” most often take internet connectivity as something intrinsically good and necessary. They also usually work from the idea that the lack of connectivity to the Internet means a total absence of other forms of networks and languages for communication and information – disregarding mainly indigenous technologies and languages. In my research in anthropology, I identify this approach as endowed with a strong colonial bias – even when it is accompanied by the best and most humanistic intentions. So, in our project, we decided that it was essential to avoid this approach. It would be our fist step. Thus, the community demand was received with interest and as an opportunity to explore non-obvious potentials for network technologies, such as the transmission of digital data over HF, and to raise public concern in the Shortwave service and in digital radio.

Contrary to common sense it takes the radio as an archaic technology, transceiver and antennas technologies continued and continues to evolve. In addition to experiment with the digital, our project provided the experience of a renewed use of HF radio through the use of a narrow band multi band antenna model with little loss of transmission power. In this way, we managed to obtain a good result for transmission and reception reaching great distances, of more than 600 km.

There is no connectivity and communication without an energy source and communities that do not have connectivity often have issues related to access to energy. In our case, photovoltaic energy was essential for the success and sustainability of our experience. If we were to rely on oil generators, the stations would probably have already been abandoned, as there would be a direct relationship between the use of equipment and money. Photovoltaic generation equipment, such as panels and charge controllers, are robust and produced to work for decades. Stationary batteries are the only bottleneck as they need to be replaced around every 3 years. Even so, at a much lower cost than the system that consumes fuel. The dimensioning of the generation system capacity for the operation of the stations was slightly oversized to guarantee a secure margin in the operation. And that margin ended up being used by the families that host the stations to supply lamps and other electrical devices, without causing an imbalance in the operation of the stations. This successful experience with photovoltaic energy has increased interest in this type of technology in the region, which we consider an interesting unintended result of our work.

Another important factor, which is not always remembered in those “humanitarian” projects, is that there is no connectivity and communication without people. And that is a determining factor for the success and continuity of the stations’ operation in these almost 6 years: the existence of a local team, formed by 6 people and led by a woman, who follow up and supports the operation of the network. They are not specialized technicians, but leaders and community members who worked directly in the installation of the stations, in the management of projects and resources and who maintain constant contact with the local community and with researchers from outside, like me and some others, who support the initiative.

A key concept for the consolidation of the network’s operation was to guide actions to promote the social appropriation of technologies: we do not seek only to train users, nor to deliver a ready made technological solution. Communities that host stations are urged to participate in the installation and to learn how to recognize the correct functioning of every equipment part. The participation of women and children is encouraged as a way of preventing the station from being operated by only one person or identified as belonging to one person.

The transmission of digital data results from the effort led by a software developer, my dear friend Rafael Diniz, PhD candidate in Computing Science at the University pf Brasilia, who collaborated with our initiative since its beginning. He was responsible for, at first, identifying and testing existing solutions for controlling the transceivers for digital data transmission, and, in a second moment, develop a customization for our needs.

In the first field tests, in addition to the radio, we used a set consisting of a laptop and tigertronics’ signalink USB modem. After proving the transmission capacity, we decided to design a new device that would combine and embed the modem and the computer, resulting at the model that we use today, as you can see in the photo, with a single-board computer, a touchscreen and a metal case. Files can be transmitted to the device via Bluetooth, WiFi or via USB ports. Files can also be played on the device itself.

Within the key concept of the social appropriation of the technology, we presented the device to the community as an unfinished version, since we needed to observe how they would interact with the operation interface and as we were open to collect suggestions for improvements, following the community-driven design methodology. This was definitely the most complex part of the work, because for the first time we were introducing new languages. Young people obviously stood out in this process. And one of the communities even refused to use the device, saying there was no interest in using it, and they did not want to take responsibility for that strange and expensive device.

We returned from the field with several inputs and collectively produced insights. We left 6 devices in operation. But, as “it takes a community to raise a software project”, the dependence of only one developer to be responsible for all aspects of project development, proved to be a bottleneck. As well as the inconstancy in funding, which was exacerbated by our choice for a situated technology, instead of the hype. The updated version based on the shared work with the community, unfortunately, has not been completed.

However, the success of the experiment drew the attention of other communities and projects, which started to produce their own developments. In another region of the Brazilian Amazon, in the Xingu River basin, the local office of the Instituto Socioambiental, one of the bigstes brazilian NGO, produced and installed 10 digital transmission devices and financed another stage of software development, that now is conducted by ABRADIG, an association focused on the development and advocacy of the adoption of digital radio in Brazil. Besides that, The HERMES project for emergency communication, carried out by Rizhomatica, from Mexico, drove the technology to operate a HF link between BTS stations. As all the code is distributed with FLOSS licenses, even though we are no longer responsible for the development, our project can continue to benefit and to apply the new results.

In 2020, thanks to the support of Article 19, and the generosity and interest of this development community, it was possible to install a new version of the transmission system, which brings new features such as the transmission addressed to a single station and the possibility of controlling the operation from a cell phone, via WiFi and a web-based interface.

I believe that what we can learn from this experience is that the implementation of reliable systems for community networks or for solving community connectivity issues must necessarily be based on listening to communities and must start from technologies and languages already available locally. New solutions must be produced in a complementary approach to local arrangements. The concept of “inclusion” must be replaced by that of social appropriation. Instead of trying to surf the hype or to follow innovation avalanche driven by programmed obsolescence it is better to produce situated technological solutions that affords to resist and to survive in a damaged planet.

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