Rural Revolution in Colombia Goes Digital

The mountain went dark. Flicking on a light switch or turning the bathroom faucets did nothing, and even the telephone lines had gone silent. Tacueyó is one of the fourteen indigenous reservations in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department, a thickly forested region dominated both by small-scale coffee farmers and roving bands of Colombia’s Marxist revolutionary group, the FARC.

The mountain went dark. Flicking on a light switch or turning the bathroom faucets did nothing, and even the telephone lines had gone silent. Tacueyó is one of the fourteen indigenous reservations in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department, a thickly forested region dominated both by small-scale coffee farmers and roving bands of Colombia’s Marxist revolutionary group, the FARC. And in April 2002, with the power lines cut and telephones useless, residents knew this signaled one, overwhelming fact: the FARC were at last planning a violent takeover of the area.


With no other means of communicating, farmers and local government leaders headed straight to their only remaining link with the outside world: a cramped, dingy Internet center in the Santander de Quilichao reservation. Huddled around a flickering computer screen powered by an emergency generator, the group sent minute-by-minute updates through Yahoo Messenger to Cauca’s municipal capital, as well as the region’s one other Internet center, in the village of Pescador. Rumors abounded: another power line had been cut – shots had been fired – a family had been rounded up and herded into the jungle, suspected of providing aid to Colombia’s privately-funded anti-FARC army, the paramilitaries.


Refugees compiled these few scraps of reliable information, then wrote up a plea for solidarity that was forwarded through an e-mail list across Latin America. In Canada, an exiled Colombian labor activist translated the message into English, before forwarding the e-mail to human rights watchdog organizations in the United States and Europe.


In less than 24 hours, the rickety computers in Tacueyó were suddenly bombarded with sympathetic and outraged letters from all over the world.


“When that listserve went out, the international community suddenly expressed solidarity with us, when otherwise we would have been left alone in the dark,” said Vilma Rocio Almendra, a young web producer for Cauca’s largest association of indigenous groups, known as ACIN. “We received e-mails from people across the globe demanding to know why the FARC was attacking a peaceful community.”


And more importantly, Almendra said, the incident made indigenous leaders aware of the power of the Internet.


“It’s not a question of Internet coming in and transforming us,” she said. “It’s a question of us taking these technologies designed for a globalized, consumerist world and turning them into a tool that’s useful for our needs.”


The Internet has long been hailed as the weapon of choice for grassroots activists, from Obama supporters during the 2008 Democratic primaries to the Twittering student protestors marching through the streets of Tehran. Less reported, however, is the quiet online revolution in Latin America’s most rural, isolated communities. Here, illiteracy remains high within these primarily oral cultures, and a bus drive from one village to the next can take up to two hours on winding, muddy roads.


In Colombia, only about 30 percent of the population has Internet access, 90 percent of which is based in cities. Internet use in the countryside remains unusual, but for those who do have access to e-mail accounts, Google and Skype, the web is increasingly becoming a mighty tool for political organizing.  


This became especially clear in Colombia during October 2008, when indigenous activists like Almendra used the Internet as the primary means for orchestrating massive protests that rocked the country for several days. Thousands of indigenous people from across the nation swamped the city of Cali, railing against paramilitary violence and the upcoming free trade treaty with the United States. And when things turned ugly, witnesses turned to the Web in the same way that outraged Iranians did this past June.


Last October 14, the Colombian army opened fire on protestors, reportedly killing two and leaving sixty injured. The next day, the army opened fire again, reportedly killing one and injuring thirty nine. Another major indigenous activist group in Cauca, known as CRIC, assailed the web with grainy cameraphone footage of the military clashing with protestors, and documented more eyewitness accounts through e-mail lists.


It is the strange nature of the digital divide that activist groups like CRIC and ACIN are able to maintain e-mail lists with up to 40,000 subscribers, even while many residents in the indigenous reservations, where CRIC and ACIN are based, lack reliable electricity or drinkable water. That it is even possible for an organization like CRIC to instantly post photos of injured protestors online is partly due to the efforts of non-profits and the Colombian government’s information ministry. These are the institutions that spent the last decade building and staffing Internet centers in rural areas known as telecentres.


Unlike Internet cafes where paying customers are left to their own devices, telecentres are free of charge and are often staffed by trained, local residents. Staff members will show novices how to open personal e-mail and Facebook accounts, how to find the latest market prices for coffee and sugar cane, and, most notably, how to stay politically informed.


“Just because someone’s connected to the Internet doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to find the information they need,” said Jhon Jairo Hurtado, who helped established two telecentres in Colombia’s Cauca region. “People may be coming in with limited knowledge of computers, but there’s no question that people are extremely interested in accessing information about issues and concerns that are affecting the Latin American indigenous community as a whole.”


And interest in using the web for political organizing is growing. Frustrated by lack of interest from the regional government, residents in Limon de Ochoa in the Dominican Republic put together a telecentre even though the village lacked working telephones. Activists used a digital radio to establish an Internet connection, then lobbied directly with the United Nations Development Program and another international agency in order to secure support for basic housing and agricultural projects. Online organizing has also been a focal point for Honduras’ afro-community, the Garifunas; as well as for the Asháninka and Shipibo communites from the Peruvian-Brazilian Amazon.


Hurtado calls the Internet an “immensely valuable tool” for indigenous activists in Colombia like the ACIN, particularly when it comes to keeping an eye on FARC and paramilitary movements in the countryside. The densely forested, Andean hills in Cauca are an especially contested region in Colombia’s civil war. Groups like CRIC and ACIN are increasingly using the web to track the violence and warn their communities of possible bloodshed in the near future.


“We began using these tools [like the Internet] to help make our community more visual to the outside world, but also to protect our own territory,” said ACIN member Almendra. “The FARC wants us on their side, the paramilitaries want us on their side, and as a result we get shoved from one side to the other. And the fact is we don’t want anything to do with these armed conflicts.”


There are about 1,300 government-funded telecentres in Colombia’s rural areas, and dozens more sponsored by non-profit groups. But since farmers are unlikely to own personal computers, e-mail and Facebook have yet to become the most efficient way of sharing information within large groups of people in the countryside. Radio predominates, as do the perifoneos, town criers who walk the village streets bellowing announcements such as the time and place for the latest local government meeting, or upcoming town hall debates about the Colombia-U.S. free trade treaty. To reach the more isolated farms, perifoneos will drive a truck into the mountains, blasting announcements from a loudspeaker.


“The Internet is like a window where we see the outside world, and let the outside world see us,” said Almendra. “But these other technologies, like radio, are like a door into our world, and that’s how most information enters and exits our community.”


Consequently, telecentres like the one used by ACIN serve as information hubs. People like Almendra use the Internet to hungrily follow the struggles of other progressive, indigenous activists across Latin America, and then share the news within Cauca’s indigenous reservations through radio shows, public debates and the occasional print newsletter published as ‘El Carpintero.’


Activists also record radio shows discussing local and international news compiled from the Internet, burn the radio programs to CDs, then distribute the disks to local bus drivers. The chiva is the traditional transportation of choice for many rural residents: jeeps that are painted startlingly bright red, yellow and white colors, and haul chickens and pigs along with human passengers, who balance on the vehicle’s rooftop or else cling precariously to the sides. On eight-hour chiva rides previously dominated by static-filled salsa music, passengers now listen to CD recordings recounting the recent bloody protests in Peru, water privatization battles in Mexico, illegal mining contracts in Guatemala, Evo Morales’ hunger strike – information collected online in the telecentres then disseminated throughout the region.


Through methods such as these, ACIN says, indigenous communities are more aware than ever of transnational struggles faced by marginalized groups.


“When these rural areas are given these tools with which they can access all this information they might not previously have been aware of, we think this generates more active, participatory citizenship,” said Julian Casasbuenas, a director of Colnodo, a non-profit that builds telecentres across Colombia. “People become intensely interested in the outside world but they also become intensely interested in what’s happening on a local level, and they want to participate more in political decisions that may affect them.”


More of this political participation will be on display next October, when activists are reportedly planning another round of protests against paramilitary violence and the U.S.-Colombian free trade treaty. On indigenous reservations in southwest Colombia, it is common to hear the elderly relate stories about how local drug warlords in the 1970’s threatened to cut off the tongues of any Indians heard speaking their native language. Now, among the younger generation, it seems the Internet is posed to become a waggling tongue impossible to severe.


This article was originally published in the CounterPunch print newsletter.