Brazilian indigenous people are increasingly online. Is it a threat to their culture?

and . Aug 08, 2019
Brazilian indigenous people are increasingly online. Is it a threat to their culture? Araribóia tribe, Maranhão state. Photo: Coisa de Índio

Alessandra Korap Silva holds her mobile phone at eye-level, turns on the camera and waits. Suddenly, from the pond in front of her, a snout emerges and a large animal starts chewing on some leaves, floating on the surface. “It’s a manatee, I’ve never seen one of these before.” She begins filming and taking photos—“I have to share this with my tribe.” Ms. Korap Silva is a member of the Munduruku people, a group of tribes which live in the Tapajós region of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. She is one of the many indigenous people in the country who use the internet.

</p> <p>Brazilian native peoples are much more connected than their foreign counterparts, says Eliete Pereira, a professor and researcher at the State University of Minas Gerais. “Excluding isolated tribes, who don’t want any contact with the outside world, native peoples have been present and active on the internet since its popularization in Brazil.”</p> <p>However, indigenous communities&#8217; embracing of new technologies has sparked controversy. If native peoples now have mobile phones and internet access, are they able to preserve their traditional ways of life?</p> <p>The discussion is relevant, as the Constitution guarantees indigenous communities the right to their traditional lands precisely to protect their culture. Under Jair Bolsonaro, challenges of the legitimacy of indigenous status have gained steam, as the new president is in favor of opening up reserves to be exploited by non-indigenous people.</p> <h2>Connected indigenous tribes</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="845" height="1024" src="" alt="Brazilian indigenous people are increasingly online. Is it a threat to their culture?" class="wp-image-21932" srcset=" 845w, 248w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 845px) 100vw, 845px" /><figcaption>&#8220;We are free to choose what we want, including being on social media,&#8221; says Alessandra Korap Silva, a Munduruku warrior. Photo: Sarita Reed</figcaption></figure> <p>Brazilians spend an average of 3 hours and 34 minutes each day on <a href="">social media</a>, behind only the Philippines (4 hours and 12 minutes), according to the <a href="">Global Digital 2019 report</a> from We Are Social and Hootsuite. Indigenous people in Brazil are not immune to this trend.</p> <p>The debate on whether the use of internet undermines indigenous identity or not, however, seems to be a concern restricted to non-indigenous people. “There is a lot of prejudice over this. We are free to choose what we want, including being on social media. We can’t be stuck in the past,” explains Ms. Korap Silva.</p> <p>“If white Brazilians spend some time in Europe, for example, do they cease to be Brazilians? That wouldn&#8217;t make sense,” argues another young indigenous person, who preferred not to be identified.</p> <p>The internet is a convenient means of communication for everyone. However, indigenous people have also been able to use it to preserve their culture, as well as to give visibility to their land struggles. “We need to have internet access to know what happens on the outside and to spread information about what is going on within our villages and lands,” says Juarez Saw Munduruku, leader of the Sawré Muybu tribe, part of the Munduruku people.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="678" src="" alt="Brazilian indigenous people are increasingly online. Is it a threat to their culture?" class="wp-image-21933" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Juarez Saw Munduruku, leader of the Sawré Muybu tribe. Photo: Sarita Reed</figcaption></figure> <p>Their insertion in the digital world, however, comes with challenges, as is the case for anyone exposed to such an intense flow of information. “One issue indigenous peoples have been discussing is the arrival of pornography in their villages and the importance of having a code of behaviour about certain types of information,” says Ms. Pereira. “But overall they think that technology can be used in positive ways.”</p> <p>Another facet of the indigenous presence on the internet is the rise of apps designed specifically for them, such as <a href="">Alerta Clima Indígena</a>, developed by the NGO Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). The program allows them to monitor the impacts of deforestation, drought risks, and fire hotspots within their lands in the Amazon basin.&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, the app also ended up being used for unforeseen purposes. “They have also monitored illegal land invasions and used the data collected to denounce wrongdoings,” explains Fernanda Bortolotto, coordinator of IPAM’s indigenous’ center.</p> <h2>Political implications</h2> <p>The discussion about the status of indigenous peoples permeates different spheres, particularly politics. One of Mr. Bolsonaro’s main causes is opening up indigenous reserves—which comprise 13 percent of Brazilian land—to the productive sector. According to a study from the World Resources Institute (WRI), annual rates of deforestation are <a href="">2.5 times lower within indigenous lands</a>.</p> <p>In November of last year, Jair Bolsonaro said in an interview to TV Bandeirantes that, if it were up to him, there would be no more demarcation of indigenous land. On another occasion, in 2017, he mentioned in an interview to RDNews that “most of the indigenous people want to be like us: [they want] electricity, television, to date a blonde, and have access to the internet.”</p> <p>Since Mr. Bolsonaro took office, some policies towards indigenous peoples have changed. The government transferred the responsibility of creating indigenous reserves from the country&#8217;s indigenous affairs agency (Funai) to the Ministry of Agriculture, complying with a request of the president&#8217;s agribusiness allies.</p> <p>Environment Minister Ricardo Salles made his first official visit to one of the few indigenous territories where natives plant soybeans, signaling that the government will focus more on incorporating them into the productive system, rather than protection or self-determination.</p> <p>“I’m always looking for information online about the new government and Congress,” says Ms. Korap Silva. From now on she will have to use the internet even more, as she will begin law school in the Federal University of Western Pará—a piece of news shared with us via WhatsApp Messenger.

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Sarita Reed

Sarita Reed is a Brazilian journalist

Vinicius Fontana

Vinicius is a freelance journalist, and has been published by several news outlets, such as Euronews, Mongabay, Deutsche Welle, Diálogo Chino, and National Geographic Brazil.

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