By APCNews MONTEVIDEO, 09 March 2009
One hundred institutions in rural areas of Paraguay with access to the internet. Poor indigenous communities experiencing contact with the world beyond their local surroundings for the first time ever. These are just a few snapshots of the outcomes achieved by Oportunet, a project launched in 2007 in Paraguay that has demonstrated the potential of the internet as a door to economic and social development in the poorest communities.
Paraguay is the country with the most expensive internet service and lowest internet penetration rates in the Latin American region. Only 7.8% of Paraguayans have an internet connection in their home.
The cost of an internet connection for a Paraguayan family is even higher when viewed relative to the minimum wage in the country. Copaco, a state-owned company, offers unlimited internet access at a speed of 256 kbps for USD 35 a month – which represents 13% of the minimum monthly salary in Paraguay. The situation is very different in developed countries, with high rates of penetration of information and communications technologies (ICTs). In Canada, for example, the cost of an internet connection twice as fast represents around 5% of the average minimum monthly salary.
This was the background context for Oportunet, a project undertaken by Fundación Paraguaya (Paraguayan Foundation) – an organisation that promotes entrepreneurism in low-income communities – with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The project provided internet access free of charge for a two-year period to 100 institutions located in rural areas of Paraguay. The goal was to bring ICTs to rural schools, community radio stations, indigenous associations and other institutions with no access to the internet.
One of the project’s beneficiaries is the local school in the Enlhet indigenous community of Yalve Sanga, located in the Chaco lowlands region of Paraguay. The introduction of the internet made it possible for the school to offer training courses in basic typing skills and the use of web-based tools (particularly the internet). This in turn provided local youth with greater access to employment opportunities, the school’s training coordinator Bruce Janz told APCNews. The Yalve Sanga school is administered by Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indígena Mennonita (Indigenous-Mennonite Cooperation Services Association – ASCIM), an NGO that works to improve the quality of life of indigenous communities in the Central Chaco. Providing the school with internet connectivity was made possible with the support of Oportunet. “We have seen that the internet has made an important contribution to improving the lives of the 145 indigenous students at our school,” said Janz.
Internet connectivity has allowed the students to become better informed about what is happening “in all areas of life,” Janz commented. “This has helped them to emerge from their anonymity and formulate their own opinions about what is going on around them,” he explained. “Through connectivity, the school’s students have become more involved in events taking place at the national and international level. They no longer feel isolated and lost in the Chaco. We even participated with the school’s students in a survey for the Americas Summit,” he added.
The internet can also prove useful for increasing job opportunities. In late 2008, an “employment pool” was created using profiles of former students. Because this is a relatively new initiative, however, it is still too early to measure its effectiveness based on its results.
The school is currently implementing a system through which homework assignments can be submitted by email. “This system motivates students by making them more enthusiastic about their homework assignments, while allowing us to save paper, ink and other expenditures,” said Janz. Students can also check their grades on the school’s website by using a personal password.
Similar results have been achieved by the Juan Ángel Benítez School in the community of Coronel Oviedo, another Oportunet beneficiary institution. “The internet has changed our lives, and just in time. We have 1,000 students, and this new tool is just what we needed. We use it to its full potential in every subject, and it has made everything easier for us, in terms of time and work. We have discovered and learned about things we never dreamed of learning; it has introduced us to the world,” computer teacher Gladys Irala Giménez commented to APCNews. “The kids are so enthusiastic that they never miss a class because it satisfies their curiosity, and that’s plain to see,” she added. This enthusiasm has even led them to start up a magazine, published in both printed and digital format. While the printed magazine sold out as soon as it went on sale, it can be seen online at www.oportunet.com.py/escuelajuanangelbenitez/
Bringing the world closer
One of the main functions served by the internet in Paraguayan rural communities is that of providing a link to the outside world, to which people here have no other means of access.
“Thanks to a video call, a grandmother here in Paraguay was able to see her newborn grandson in Spain. Her eyes filled up with tears. She couldn’t believe that something like this was possible here in our community,” José Luis Riehme told APCNews. Riehme is the director of a community multimedia centre run by the Oñondivepá Teko Sakame Association (which means “together for a transparent lifestyle” in the Guaraní indigenous language). The centre, located in the town of Capitán Miranda, opened in December 2007 thanks to funding from UNESCO and the support of Oportunet. Today it provides training in basic computer skills and internet services (broadband connectivity, webcams, Skype) at an affordable cost for the local population.
Internet connectivity is not only useful for learning about new places and meeting new people, but also for reinforcing existing family ties, something especially valuable in a town like Capitán Miranda, where a large percentage of the population has emigrated abroad in search of employment and better living conditions. At the same time, it helps to strengthen links between local organisations and groups.
The internet is also a valuable tool in education and job training for children and adolescents. The Capitán Miranda multimedia centre is currently implementing a project aimed specifically at this age group. “We are working on a project to reach children and young people from low-income rural areas to provide them with training and knowledge of ICTs. It’s a fairly big challenge, since many of them live as far as fifteen kilometres away from the town, over dirt roads with very limited transportation services. These kids barely manage to get a primary school education, since the rural schools don’t offer secondary education,” explained Riehme.
There is obviously a great deal that needs to be done, and the obstacles to further progress primarily lie in a lack of resources. Janz pointed to two challenges to be given immediate priority: online university classes for indigenous youth who live far away from higher education institutions, and the expansion of broadband availability. “This would make an enormous contribution to the economic and social development of indigenous communities,” he remarked.
Ten years ago, in a computer science class, Janz took apart a computer to show the students that there was nothing strange inside it. Today the school he works at has sixteen computers. But the progress made goes beyond material infrastructure. The internet has radically changed the lives of rural communities in Paraguay, and continues to do so.
Editor’s note: Oportunet was one of the organisations that participated in the workshops offered by TRICALCAR, an initiative aimed at promoting the deployment of wireless networks and training in their use, undertaken by APC member organisations in Latin America. (TRICALCAR stands for “Tejiendo redes inalámbricas comunitarias en América Latina y el Caribe”, or “Weaving Community Wireless Networks in Latin America and the Caribbean”.)
After returning home from the TRICALCAR workshop, the participants from Oportunet reported that it had been especially useful for reviewing the topology of their organisation’s network, assessing other devices and protocols, and experimenting with VoIP and other potential applications that are currently not permitted in Paraguay.