The other side of the river: Cyberspace comes to the Amazon
By Fausto Rêgo
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL, 30 June 2005
Caetano Scannavino came up with a surprise finding in the northern Brazilian state of Pará, which has its territory covered mostly by jungle, covering a vast area of Amazon Rainforest.
He explains how riverside populations deep in the interiors of Para encountered the Net: “In the beginning, we feared that the telecentres would open up such a new world for these communities that they would absorb — or suffocate — all the traditional culture of these populations. In practice, we see that a new world has opened up.
“Instead of weakening traditional knowledge, the opposite has happened: members of the communities, coming across this new, so-different world on the internet, have succeeded in better identifying who there are. They now want to launch community sites to present their reality to the world.”
Scannavino is coordinator of the Saúde e Alegria (Health and Happiness) Project. Populations in the interior of Pará responded unexpectedly zto the work developed in partnership with the Third Sector Information Network (known as Rits, from its acronym formed by its Portuguese name, Rede de
Informações para o Terceiro Setor).
This has been supported by the Fundação Avina (Avina Foundation) and the Instituto para a Conectividade nas Américas (Institute for Connectivity in the Americas).
In the air
Two telecentres were already established in the communities of Suruacá and Maguari, on the banks of the Tapajós River, and another telecentre is planned for Belterra. But there are other new developments in the air.
And ‘in the air’ is an apt expression: in June, a Rits team returned to the region to continue tests with equipment that will expand the range of the antennas used by the telecentres, extending the signal to neighbouring communities. This is being done all through wireless technology, operating with photovoltaic, or solar-generated, energy.
The project is using creativity to expand the potential of the E-Governance Citizen Support Service (Gesac, or Governo Eletrônico – Serviço de Atendimento ao Cidadão) project, a federal government project. (See details below.)
Gesac installed two antennas -– one on each side of the Tapajós -– that enabled the establishment of the Suruacá and Maguari telecentres, with a capacity of up to 20 computers.
Now, the idea is to broadcast the radio signal to other communities.
“At first, we thought to use Gesac’s support in strategic areas, areas where the Saúde e Alegria Project is working that are much closer to the region known as the Terra do Meio, where there is much soya and illegal land occupation. But the government is currently refusing the new Gesac antennas,” says Rits executive director Paulo Lima.
Lima adds, “We started to think of solutions to this problem. The idea emerged to work with wi-fi to carry the signal from the telecentres to other communities. Our initiative is to extend the signal and promote cost effectiveness, once a large number of people see the benefit to themselves.”
The central idea of the project, he says, is to use clean technology. “No cables, no trees being cut down, everything is wireless”, he states.
In February, an operation was carried out together with Saúde e Alegria. A 30 metre antenna was set up. Tests began. The results showed that it was possible to maintain a good quality signal at a distance of approximately 20 kilometres.
“Initially, we followed a line parallel to the river, trying to cross the jungle to get from one community to another, but within two or three days, this was shown to be ineffective,” Lima narrates.
“Literature on wi-fi already indicates that the forest would absorb part of the energy distributed by the radio waves. We are therefore now starting to study the possibility of pointing the antenna towards the river, in the direction of the other bank. In this way, we will have a more favourable reaction from nature.”
Soon, the adopted strategy was therefore to make a zigzag, transmitting the signal from one bank to the other, to overcome the interference of the forest. To this end, sectoral antennas need to be installed, explains Rodrigo Afonso, Rits’s Information Technology Manager.
Says Afonso, “They have a major advantage: precision is not required, because they broadcast the signal at a set angle, and the antennas can therefore be positioned more easily. However, by broadcasting the signal, the range is less.”
To work around this problem, the solution is to use a set of antennas. And as the signal will cross from one side of the river to the other, two-fold navigation will be possible: in the waters of the Tapajós, and on the waves of the internet.
Saúde e Alegria has an ambulance that provides medical assistance and a boat-hospital is being built. Both of these will have internet and voice over IP (VoIP) connections to communicate with the communities.
“We will use a unidirectional antenna, which will be effective through 360 degrees”, explains Afonso. This antenna will capture the signal where it is strongest, ensuring an on-board connection.
VoIP technology enables people to make telephone calls using their internet connection -– and without significant consumption of internet bandwidth.
“You can have two connections per community without affecting the remaining bandwidth. People will be able to make calls amongst themselves to standard telephones, even to other countries, in the event that this is considered in the project,” says Rodrigo Afonso.
Afonso adds that each VoIP phone will have a number and this number will be accessible like a standard telephone within an internal network. “It is not a public number, you cannot connect from a standard telephone to it, but connections can be made between extensions as if it was a standard
telephone. It is how an internal PABX works, with extensions distributed through the network.”
Afonso observes, however, that “administrative details” are still lacking for the implementation of the service. “We must ascertain who will pay for a call that is made in this locality, and how it will be charged. This will be discussed and considered with the participation of the communities.”
Finding the answer
There are innumerable applications for all this technology. Paulo Lima narrates that, on his arrival in Maguari in February, he was surprised to see the community grouped in the telecentre watching a film on DVD, one of the main forms of weekend entertainment.
“They are dubbed films, which would be difficult to access”, Lima relates.
“When someone goes to Santarém or Belterra, better developped municipal areas in the region, they take out some films, and bring them here. And ten or fifteen persons stay in front of the computer, which is a multimedia station, with a DVD-player and speakers. This is something that transcends
the conventional theme of digital inclusion. The telecentre is used by the riverside inhabitants as a cultural inclusion experience. They are thus called Cultural Telecentres with internet.”
Rits and the Saúde e Alegria teams also saw for themselves the importance that information and communications technologies can have. While they were testing the range of the signal along the river, inside a boat, they saw a disturbance in the community of Piquiatuba: a 15-year-old girl had been
bitten by a snake.
There was no medical centre, anti-snakebite serum, street or telephone.
The only access to the site was by river, but the boat providing regular transport in the region would not arrive within even 24 hours. In such a situation, a delay could be fatal.
There was no other solution but to abandon the tests and help the girl. If there had been an internet connection there, they could have communicated with the closest town to ask for help, and the doctor might have given directions on what should be done until his arrival on site.
In the case of this girl, the internet had an important role.
“She had a tourniquet on her leg,” says Paulo Lima, “and we had the impression that this was not the current approach, but nobody was sure. As we were connected to the internet there, we searched for information on what a surucucu bite meant, and how to proceed.”
On the website of the Butantã Institute, it was there: tourniquets have not been used for a long time, and the person must have the leg at rest. “When the tourniquet was removed, and we saw that what was being done was scientifically what should be done, we were a lot calmer. And the girl also felt more comfortable,” recalls Lima.
For Rits’ executive director, this experience was an example of the challenges to be faced in this project.
“It is completely different from working in an urban area, you are much more exposed to the unexpected. Therefore, the more people work with Saúde e Alegria, the more they respect what they have managed to do in an area with so many nature- and communication-related difficulties. It is a very
interesting, very extensive apprenticeship,” he admits.
Currently, the Saúde e Alegria Project is operational in 143 communities in the Amazon region, and the creation of the telecentres has generated more curiosity in the neighbouring areas.
Some people came by boat to find out about the telecentres, others spent hours on foot to reach Suruacá or Maguari. “The issue of access to computers — not even to the internet, which they know little about — is the dream of these communities. With the success of the telecentres, transforming the
dream into reality (and more, since they finally understood and saw in practice what the internet is), a great expectation was created for more telecentres”, says Caetano Scannavino.
The level of enthusiasm is reflected in the atmosphere itself -– clean, organised, with well maintained computers and free software being used by the community without the slightest difficulty.
“We arrived there and they were using the latest technologies, unassisted. And all based on GNU/Linux and free software. This shows that you do not need Windows to learn to use a computer”, comments Rodrigo Afonso.
The project, in this second phase, looks out for solutions to expand new community telecentres. It is a low-cost, high social impact model experiment for the technological viability of digital inclusion in isolated regions in the Amazon.
According to Paulo Lima, it is a clear example of the contribution that an NGO can make, based on three fundamental elements: creativity, operational capacity and innovation. “These are the richest characteristics of the relationship between civil society and the state. This experiment, which has had concrete results, will connect two more communities where we will leave equipment — a laptop in
each — probably in Parauá and Piquiatuba,” says he.
These experiments will be well documented, and those behind it say they will try to propel the project with additional steam to cover a larger number of communities. To attain this objective, the challenge is to obtain financing.
“The initiative proves it has low-cost viability”, Lima analyses, “but to broaden the scale, major support is needed, considering that all the the research and implementation investment is already ready.”
Bandwidth – amount of data that a network can transmit simultaneously.
Photovoltaic Energy – Solar generated electricity.
Gesac – Acronym of the Governo Eletrônico – Serviço de Atendimento Ao Cidadão (E-Governance Citizen Support Service), established by the Brazilian Ministry of Communications in 2002, with the objective of creating universal access to the internet for low-income populations, with broadband (high speed) access, via satellite.
IP Network – protocol on which the internet infrastructure is based.
VoIP – Voice over Internet Protocol (IP); technology that enables the establishment of telephone conversations on the internet or an IP networ instead of a line dedicated to voice transmission.
Wi-fi – abbreviation of “wireless fidelity”; this relates to the protocoused to promote broadband access to the internet in public sites, without cables.