Community networks in Maranhão, Brazil, improve communications conditions for traditional people

Although access to broadband Internet has been growing in Brazil, one may find yet a huge gap in marginalized regions and populations, especially in rural areas.

This is both the case of quilombola communities living in rural areas and of over 300 thousand women who make their living from gathering babassu palm tree coconuts – quebradeiras de côco ­- in forested areas, mainly in the Legal Amazon basin.

Much of the land where the babassu palm trees grow has been irregularly occupied by extensive cattle ranchers and farmers that have destroyed a large part of the babassu forests and now either ban the access of the women to the palm trees or charge them for collecting the coconuts. Moreover, threats against these women and the forest have come from paper, oil and gas industries that are cutting down the forest to implement their enterprises, not recognizing traditional communities’ rights. Quilombolas also struggle to live in and make use of lands where their ancestors (slaves brought by Portuguese colonizers against their will) lived.

While quilombolas fight for the right to live and work on the lands where they come from and to preserve their culture, Babassu coconut breakers fight for their right to access and explore babassu coconut in a sustainable way in order to allow the continuity of their population survival, including the maintenance of their source of income and traditional knowledge, as well as their culture – and improvements in their quality of life.

In face of the fact that these movements and communities still struggle to communicate in many of the areas where they live, Instituto Nupef has been building solid partnerships in order to help strengthen their political articulation, communications, economic development and security through the implementation of ICTs.

During 2019, Nupef made advancements in the implementation of community networks in the state of Maranhão - together with quilombolas and babassu coconut breakers. In the quilombo of Bairro Novo, in Penalva, Nupef made improvements and expanded networks that had been implemented at first in 2017. In the community of Pifeiros, in Amarante do Maranhão, Nupef implemented an offline community network.

Although Penalva had a stable and sustainable network since 2017, Nupef and APC’s community network expert Mike Jensen, identified the need to make several improvements aiming at enhancing the resiliency of this network - n terms of reach, bandwidth and management. New versions of the softwares were installed for better local and remote management (libremesh, Zero tier, Team viewer and Captive Portal Pirania; Debian, Audacity, VLC, Kdenlive and Libre Office pack). For increasing the reach and quality of the internet, four new nodes were implemented, almost doubling the area covered and reaching twice (60) the houses; the speed increased from 10MB to 25MB and the data cap from 25GB to 80 GB. Costs less than doubled, at the same time the range of the mesh network increased and they have now twice the users. The current network benefits directly over 300 people; and ad-hoc users are hundreds more. People regularly sharing the costs doubled from 30 to 60. During events passwords are handed out to participants for 2 Brazilian Reais, or about US$ 0,40, in events that bring in over 200 people.

In the community of Pifeiros, a babassu coconut breaker community, a local network was implemented, due to the fact there was no internet provision in the area - no cable and no satellite reached the community. However, the local network allows the inhabitants to communicate among each other and some services, such as nextcloud, for file sharing, briar and Meshenger for local text messaging and calls, and the free app store Fdroid, offline Wikipedia and digital books in public domain.

The network reaches about 90% of the community and about 40 people engaged in the implementation of the network. This has been an incredibly participatory process, from defining the spots where the radios would be to actual installing and content production workshops.

In Pifeiros, in spite of the fact that the community didn’t get to access the Internet so far, community members highlighted the positive aspects of the project. According to Wcelia, a young babassu coconut breaker involved in several projects, said that the news that their community network would not allow them to access the Internet initially caused a certain level of frustration, because everyone was expecting to immediately use WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram. However, during the week Nupef was there implementing, she realized that “it was a very important step and may help future sustainable use of the network, because implementing technology step by step - start communicating, understanding how it works internally - may have benefits for a community that has been been living with no connectivity for decades”. The Interstate Movement for Babassu Coconut Breakers (MIQCB) was an important partner for the successful experience in Pifeiros. Before Nupef got in the community for the first time, MIQCB held several meetings with the community to assess their need and will to carry out this project.

Acoording to Genival, a local leader and dean of the local school, “we had already searched in Amarante (the closest municipality) for companies that might provide Internet for our community, and all solutions were far beyond the community's experience and finances. We would need to pay for a tower with an antenna that would reach around 8 to 10 thousand reais and then pay the package monthly, which would be unaffordable for community members. Recently, when MIQCB staff reached out to us there was a chance of creating a community network we got very excited, since we were very isolated. This is the first step.”

Nupef continues to seek a solution for Internet provision in Pifeiros. Nupef’s community networks programme include other areas and communities and has the support of Ford Foundation, Association for Progressive Networks (APC) and Internet Society (ISOC).